It's a busy time in the nation's capital, where the National Cherry Blossom Festival continues through April 14. If you venture to Washington this spring or any time, consider paying a visit to Florida House, now celebrating 40 years as our home away from home on Capitol Hill.
Florida is the only state with an "embassy" in the nation's capital. It's funded by private donations and enjoys bipartisan support.
Floridians are "always welcome to visit this landmark on Capitol Hill at any time of year," writes Gayle Wirtz, president of the Central Florida Council for Florida House. The group boasts 109 members in the Orlando area.
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An idea born in the 1960s
The beginnings of Florida House go back to the late 1960s, its president, Bart Hudson, recalls in a short documentary video unveiled recently. (Search "Florida House documentary" on YouTube.com.)
The project was the brainchild of Rhea Chiles, wife of the late senator and governor Lawton Chiles.
During his 1970 senate race, Chiles rambled on foot across the state — a 1,000-mile trek that brought him fame and the nickname "Walkin' Lawton." But in the late 1960s, he was a far-from-famous state senator when he and Rhea took their kids on a trip to Washington.
"The children were in elementary school, and it was just a hectic visit," Rhea Chiles recalls. During the hubbub, one of the kids asked, "If all the foreign countries have embassies, why don't the states have embassies?" The question stuck with her.
A few years later, after her husband's election to the Senate, Rhea Chiles spotted a for-sale sign on a town house a block east of the Capitol.
Built in 1891 by Edward Manning, an architect working on the Library of Congress, the three-story beauty had seen many owners, but by the early 1970s — before the renaissance of Capitol Hill — it had deteriorated into a flophouse for drifters and then a boarded-up wreck.
"This was the era of the fires and the riots, and it was not a safe place," Rhea Chiles said in 2003.
Today, it's an incomparable location, near the Library of Congress, Supreme Court and Folger Shakespeare Library as well as the Capitol.
The Chileses began their quest to buy the house with $5,000 of their own money, and raised the rest. "We just developed a constituency that wanted to see it happen," Rhea Chiles recalls.
Their goal was to create a place free of politics where Floridians could find out more about Washington and the nation's government and relax with a glass of orange juice.
Supporters and staff members say that mission has succeeded well.
"We tell everyone about it, because it's open to the public," says Patricia Mica (wife of U.S. Rep. John Mica), who is Senior Vice Chairman of the Florida House Board of Trustees.
"We have a lot going on," says Liz Doyle of the Florida House staff. "We welcome more than 10,000 visitors a year, including school groups, those having business in Washington, seminars, interns and all types of events."
"We absolutely became the neighborhood of Florida that day," Hudson said later.
Florida House is at 1 Second Street N.E. Call 202-546-1555, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit floridaembassy.com.
'Seminole County's Centennial'
The Seminole County Historical Society offers a pre-April 1 discount on "Seminole County's Centennial — Celebrating a Century of Success," a hardcover, souvenir edition by Jim Robison.
"The book tells the history of the current seven and other historical towns and communities in the county, and also has chapters that focus on transportation, agriculture, education and quality of life," writes Kim Nelson of the Museum of Seminole County History.
The price is $29.99, plus tax and shipping, before April 1 and $35 after April 1. Call the museum office, 407-665-2489.