U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, is requesting $250,000 in federal money to repair windows at Seattle's elite Rainier Club. The 1904 building's limestone window sills are eroding, causing water seepage and damaging structural timbers. Club members have given half of the $500,000 needed to cover repairs, a club official said.

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Among more than 100 local projects for which U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott recently sought funding earmarks in the coming federal budget are a new cancer-research program, municipal road projects and a law-enforcement initiative to combat gang violence.

Also included on the Seattle Democrat’s 2010 appropriations wish list is a relatively modest — but curious — appeal:

A $250,000 request to fund a “window repair and limestone sill replacement” at The Rainier Club — one of Seattle’s premier private clubs, whose members include some of the city’s most well-heeled and politically connected residents.

McDermott’s request on behalf of The Rainier Club would match the $250,000 raised by club members to cover renovations at the club’s 105-year-old brick building on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle.

The club — which provides wood-paneled dining halls, a health and fitness club, a library and private bedrooms where members can stay overnight — has about 1,200 members who pay $191 per month in membership dues, said Michael Troyer, the club’s chief operating officer.

A McDermott aide, who said Friday the congressman was on a flight to Seattle and unavailable for comment, called the private club’s request “a fair project to submit for funding” that had nothing to do with political back-scratching.

“They made the case that it’s a historic building in our home city, and they had tried to raise the money themselves but fell short,” Mike DeCesare said. “It was a significant argument.”

Representatives for the club said Friday the need for renovations is real and immediate. Limestone window sills are eroding, causing water seepage and damaging structural timbers for the part of the historic building that dates to 1904.

But after more than a year of fundraising, the club has gathered only half the $500,000 needed to cover repairs, Troyer said.

Although the club’s building is a designated city landmark and listed as a historic building by the state, it is not recognized as “nationally significant.” So it doesn’t qualify for funding through existing state historic-preservation grant programs, said Anthony Welcher, a board member.

“We didn’t just decide one day that we are going to request this funding because we think we’re entitled to it,” Welcher said. “This is about historic preservation, nothing else.”

But at least one congressional-watchdog group believes McDermott’s earmark request is off base.

“They are earmarking it because they can’t get in through the front door, so they are climbing in through the window,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent, nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C.

The earmark request also means a private group of politically connected individuals is trying to step in front of other projects that do qualify for federal money through a merit-based process, Ellis said.

To qualify for such money, applicants have to be on the National Register of Historic Places or be a national historic landmark. The money flows through the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service.

DeCesare defended The Rainier Club’s request.

“People who know Jim well, people would chuckle out loud if the implication is that he’s in the pocket of business interests,” DeCesare said.

Earmarks — funding requests inserted in the federal budget by individual members of Congress — increasingly have come under attack as an example of wasteful spending. The House and Senate this year changed its rules so that members have to disclose such requests.

Founded in 1888

Founded as a “gentleman’s club” in 1888, The Rainier Club long has served as a meeting place for city movers and shakers. At times, it even has hosted U.S. presidents.

According to an essay by HistoryLink.org, a local history Web site, prominent past members include noted photographer Edward Curtis; members of the Blethen family, owner of The Seattle Times; and art collectors Richard Fuller, who founded the Seattle Art Museum, and H.C. Henry.

Although membership dues cover capital-improvement expenses, the club’s historic building needs constant repair work, making it difficult for dues and donations to keep pace with maintenance, Troyer and Welcher said.

“Many people who join the club are average individuals,” added Welcher, former director of the State Department’s office of intergovernmental affairs under President George W. Bush.

“It’s not what I would describe as a prominent, exclusive club. Of course, there are many prominent members … but we have a large diverse group.”

DeCesare, who said he personally toured the club this year and called its renovation needs “severe,” noted that, under strict new appropriations rules, such earmark requests are scrutinized more than ever.

In all, McDermott’s office submitted more than 100 funding requests. McDermott posted a summary of all requests to his congressional Web site in early April, DeCesare said.

“There weren’t any [requests] that were outlandish, outrageous or embarrassing,” he said.

The Rainier Club request includes an engineer’s report, and a letter of support from the Washington Trust and the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. The request also will be “independently evaluated” by an outside historic preservation agency before Congress makes any final funding decisions, DeCesare added.

Asked if such a funding request for a private club should be subsidized by taxpayer money, DeCesare said he doesn’t see why not.

“You can ask the same question of any institution that submits requests for money,” he said. “And remember, asking is a long way from getting.”

Lewis Kamb: 206-464-2341 or lkamb@seattletimes.com