By DCist contributor Shannon Fisher
Most people see the National Press Club backdrop during press conferences and think of it as a building where newsmakers share information with the press. The National Press Club isn’t as well-known for the rifts it has caused in marriages or for being an establishment that houses stolen gold rush artifacts.
The National Press Club is indeed a professional organization for journalists, and while membership at the club is limited to journalists and other communications professionals, the building has a rich history far beyond the press conferences it has hosted. The restaurant in the building is also open to the public, which allows anyone in D.C. to explore many of the its hallowed halls (full disclosure: I am a member of the National Press Club and part of the volunteer team that produces the NPC Update-1 podcast.) Following are a few of the tales of frivolity and turmoil at NPC that captured the attention of the nation.
1. Liquor License #1: NPC is the proud recipient of Washington, D.C. liquor license number one, which was assigned to the club on opening day of the taproom in 1933, immediately following Prohibition.
2. The National Press Building Has Its Own Zip Code: It is one of two commercial buildings in D.C. to be assigned its own zip code (20045) by USPS. When the National Press Building opened in 1927, it was the largest private office building in Washington, D.C. The large number of tenants in the 14-story, 490,000 square foot building warranted a unique zip code when codes were officially assigned throughout the U.S. in 1963. The Washington Post (20071) is the only other commercial building in D.C. to have been assigned its own zip code.
3. Princess Alice: There is a seven-foot-tall Alaskan totem sitting next to the club president’s office that NPC members ”liberated” in 1923 from the Miner’s Home Saloon, a saloon that was popular with miners in Fairbanks during Alaska’s gold rush. Affectionately deemed “Princess Alice” after Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the totem is said to have been smuggled back to D.C. in the train also carrying the coffin of former U.S. President Warren Harding. Harding, also a newspaper publisher, was an active NPC member who died during this West-Coast group outing.
4. The Audacity of HOPE: The iconic poster of Barack Obama with the word “HOPE” that was ubiquitous during the 2008 campaign was designed by artist Shepard Fairey using a photograph taken at the National Press Club. The photo was snapped by AP freelance photographer Mannie Garcia in 2006 at a press conference, during which actor George Clooney and then-Senator Barack Obama discussed the human rights crisis in Darfur. The AP threatened to sue Fairey for copyright infringement, but Fairey sued them first, claiming the parts of the photograph he used for the poster were fair use of elements of the photo. The AP countersued, and the two parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. The saga didn’t end there: Fairey falsified documents in the court case and claimed the poster was based on a photo he had taken. He was sentenced to probation, community service, and a $25,000 fine.
5. The Korean War: The National Press Club played a role in starting the Korean War, according to many historians. In January of 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson spoke at NPC about America’s defense perimeter in the Far East, and he did not mention South Korea. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and North Korean Prime Minister Kim Il Sung may have taken that as a sign they could invade South Korea without United States interference.
6. Presidential Blessing Financed the Building: The National Press Club built the 14-story National Press Building to create a home for out-of-town news organizations. President Calvin Coolidge laid the cornerstone of the building April 8, 1926. By his doing so, NPC could say the president of the United States had endorsed the building, and commercial real estate investors jumped in to participate. It became the largest private office building in Washington at the time.
7. Truman and Bacall: The most famous photo ever taken at the club was that of then Vice President Harry Truman and budding actress Lauren Bacall in 1945. During WWII, NPC opened its doors to servicemen for free hot dogs and beers on Saturdays, and politicians would come to speak at these “NPC Canteens” (with a two-minute limit to curb the political talk). Truman stopped by one Saturday to greet the troops, and Lauren Bacall was there to entertain them. Truman sat down to play piano during his address, and Bacall’s agent recognized this as an opportunity to catapult the young starlet to stardom. He pushed Bacall on stage and hoisted her onto the piano, her legs dangling. Photographers went wild, and the photo was on the front page of newspapers nationwide. Truman’s wife Bess was not pleased, as her husband had said he was going to an all-men’s club to talk to soldiers. From that moment on, no photographs have been allowed in members-only areas of the National Press Club.
8. Off the Record: In addition to the “no photographs” rule in the members-only Reliable Source bar, enacted after the Truman/Bacall kerfuffle, everything said in that room is known to be off the record unless otherwise specified. Reporters often bring their sources to the club for lunch or a cocktail, and no one wants to be photographed as a source – especially an anonymous one. The bar is very much an “everybody knows your name” establishment, and they even serve free tacos to members during happy hour every Friday night!
9. 20th Century Fox: The F Street entrance to the building looks like an old movie palace entrance because it was originally a big theater. 20th Century Fox built a movie palace in the building to help raise money for construction. The theater was demolished in the 1960s.
10. It’s Deploraball: The club rents its rooms for private events, and one such non-club-sponsored event was the Deploraball on the evening of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Sponsored by pro-Trump group MAGA3X and billed as “the biggest meme party you’ve ever seen,” the event had a controversial list of speakers, including notable members of the alt-right, scheduled to address the crowd. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the building as heated protests erupted in the streets. (You might remember that Drew Carey’s son started a fire in the street as part of the unrest.) Deploraball attendees and NPC employees were trapped inside until the police dispersed the crowd.
11. Spelling Bee: There is an annual “Politicians vs. Press” Spelling Bee held at the club, where elected officials compete against journalists for the title. When NPC organized the original spelling bee in 1913 as social event for lawmakers and journalists, President Wilson and most of his Cabinet attended. A century later, in 2013, the Club revived the spelling bee as an annual tradition. The 2015 winner was Virginia Congressman Don Beyer, and the 2016 winner was Journalist Art Swift of Gallup.
12. First CSPAN Broadcast: The first remote telecast by CSPAN was on the 14th floor at the National Press Club on Oct. 7, 1980. C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb hosted the channel’s first-ever call-in program, interviewing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Charles Ferris, in a small studio the size of a closet that still remains at NPC. According to C-SPAN, this was the first national television call-in that became a regular program.
13. All-Male Club Until 1971: NPC was an all-male club until 1971. In 1919, the same year women won the right to vote, women journalists founded their own club, the Women’s National Press Club, where Eleanor Roosevelt held press conferences for female journalists during the Depression. After NPC began allowing women in 1971, WNPC became the Washington Press Club, which was a rival club for NPC until the clubs merged in 1985. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev refused to speak at an NPC in 1959 unless women were allowed to attend. Ronald Reagan swore in the first female NPC President, Vivian Vahlberg, in 1982.
14. Sustainable Dining: The Fourth Estate Restaurant is open to the public (reservations can be made via Open Table). It serves locally grown produce and locally sourced cheese and meats from organic and small farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
15. Roosevelt Nook: Franklin Roosevelt frequented the club more than any other U.S. president, which is well documented with photographs. There is a “Roosevelt nook” in the dining room of The Fourth Estate restaurant containing many of these photos, along with those of other well-known figures in American history and pop culture.