Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Prohibition Years: Speakeasy Locations in DC

Kim Roberts is the author of "Jazz Age Scandals of the Rich and Scandalous!" The tour, commissioned by the Humanities Council of Washington DC for The Big Read, can be taken on your own using the self-guided tour brochure available online (click on the link for the PDF). There are also some spaces available for Kim's guided tours on April 26 and May 10, from 10:30 to 12:30. To reserve, please email dcbigread@wdchumanities.org or by calling 202-387-8391.

Kim writes:
While researching The Big Read DC tour this year, I knew right away that one of my themes would have to be Prohibition. The Prohibition laws started in DC in 1917, three years before they went countrywide, so the city was seen as a national model by Temperance organizations.

I wanted to add some former speakeasy locations to the tour, but soon found out how hard it was to find them with any certainty. In 1930, an anti-Prohibition group called The Crusaders published a map of 934 locations that had been raided in the prior seven-month period (934! And those were only the ones where the law had been enforced! There were probably over 2,000 in total). But the map, when I found a copy in the Library of Congress, was woefully lacking in details. Only the major streets were shown, and there were no exact addresses. I found some presumed speakeasy addresses from newspaper articles and oral histories taken many years after Prohibition ended, but these kinds of testimonies, dependent on fading memories, are notoriously faulty. Most researchers will only trust such sources if they can verify them with at least one other citation.

I could document enforcement and advocacy: I knew, for example, the exact location of the Anti-Saloon League of the District of Columbia (805 15th Street NW, in the Woodward Building). But somehow that was not quite as sexy.

So I turned my attention to private clubs. My favorite among the ones I found was the Gaslight Club, a legal organization located at 1020 16th St. NW. They developed a clever set-up for drinking members: to access the bar on the building's third floor, you had to enter through a faked men's bathroom. Then you had to turn a faucet handle to open a sliding panel that would admit you into the bar.

Many speakeasies were in private homes. There's one I found mentioned in a few places, so I believe the stories are trustworthy. It was in the living room of a third floor apartment on K Street. I knew the chances of this building still standing were poor, but like a dutiful researcher I went down there to see for myself. Much to my delight, I found it still exists--the original, intact, low-rise brick building, overshadowed by its high-rise neighbors. And (with strange appropriateness) it operates today as a strip club, Archibald's Gentleman's Club, at 1520 K St. NW.

The most famous of all the speakeasies was further down on K Street. The "Little Green House" at 1625 K was the headquarters of the notorious Ohio Gang. Cronies of President Warren G. Harding set themselves up in business there, with a combination speakeasy, gambling house, and brothel, operated by lobbyist Howard Mannington. This was said to be the place to arrange everything from protection from bootleggers, to the purchase of pardons and paroles, to appointments to Federal office.

The speakeasy that finally ended up on the tour (at stop number three), was another private club in the 1920s. The building still stands, and still operates as a club--but it is a public establishment now, offering an array of mixed drinks and live music. So raise a glass of booze at MCCXXIII Club, 1223 Connecticut Ave. NW, to the 18th Amendment, which made alcohol illegal across the US in January 1920, and--more importantly!--the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in December 1933.

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