WASHINGTON – Animal House it ain't. And don't expect chants of "Toga, Toga, Toga" when the Woodrow Wilson House opens its doors Dec. 6 to an invitation-only party. But there will be booze.
Mark Benbow, historian at the house where the 28th president lived his last three years, has grown tired of hearing people wrongly say Wilson was responsible for Prohibition because it occurred while he was in the White House.
So he's throwing a party in Wilson's honor and getting a brewer to supply the alcohol.
Benbow said Wilson — who liked a small whiskey by the fire after dinner — preferred keeping wine and beer legal and believed communities rather than the federal government should determine liquor laws.
"Wilson had one standard answer on Prohibition, and he said the same statement over and over to anyone who asked," Benbow said, "He was for local option and he didn't think it should be a political issue."
Guests at "A Prohibition Era Holiday Party," will be invited to sip "tea," apparently a code word for the wine and beer that will be served, and view an exhibit that includes home-brewing equipment from the Prohibition era, photos of raids in the capital by federal agents and of a small British steamship that anchored off the coast in Chesapeake Bay. It sent liquor in small motorboats to thirsty Washingtonians.
There's also a map purporting to show that by 1930 there were more speakeasies in Washington than there had been saloons.
"There may be a little exaggeration there," Benbow acknowledged. "Some of those black dots may just be private houses that were raided."
The exhibit includes an empty champagne bottle found among others in the cellar after Wilson's widow gave the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Benbow also has included propaganda both for and against Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment, which banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of intoxicating beverages, took effect Jan. 20, 1920, ushering in 13 years of national Prohibition. Wilson could not veto a constitutional amendment, but he did veto the Volstead Act, which limited alcoholic content of beverages to half of 1 percent. Congress overrode the veto the next day.
The Woodrow Wilson House is the only presidential museum in Washington. The cover of the invitation to the Dec. 6 party shows a pair of eyes in Wilsonian pinch-nose glasses, peering through a peephole in a speakeasy door. The caption: "Woody sent me."
The exhibit runs through April 10, the 73rd anniversary of the end of Prohibition in Washington. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors and $3 for students.
Another part of the show is a history of beer brewing in Washington, which started in 1794, the year after the Capitol's cornerstone was laid. It is being shown in "The Brewmaster's Castle," a short walk from the Wilson house, built by Christian Heurich, one of the city's most prominent brewers. Suggested donation: $5 per person.