In the 1960s, a station wagon full of overtired Florida children looped endlessly around Washington, D.C.’s bewildering traffic circles. The campground where they’d planned to stay was gone. The car made its way down Embassy Row, and the children thought of something. Where was Florida’s embassy?
“We explained to them that the different states don’t have embassies,” their mother, Rhea Chiles, told a reporter in 2003. “They thought that was short shrift.”
Today, Florida House is a reality. Visitors rap on the door with a seashell-shaped knocker, and a staffer welcomes them into a bright foyer. That leads into a living room inset with color-drenched stained glass. Florida art hangs on the walls; an ocean-themed mantel frames a fireplace. Orange juice is always offered.
Different versions of the founding story have appeared in many articles about Florida House over the years; there’s even a video with Chiles telling one. They vary, but they all make sense, and because of the children’s guileless reasoning—Chiles listened. She founded Florida House, so other Floridians would have a place to call home when they were in D.C. It is right on Capitol Hill, and is the only state “embassy.”
The actual founding, though, was years in the making. Rhea Chiles returned to Washington in the early ‘70s when husband, Lawton Chiles, was a senator. (People called him “Walkin’ Lawton” because, during his campaign, he walked from Pensacola to Key West.) She saw a run-down Victorian on her walks to his office. Boards covered the windows, and it stood in part of the city many considered unsafe. But Chiles liked the house. She saw potential, raised money, and bought it for $125,000 in 1973.
Florida House stands on a Capitol Hill corner; the other three corners at the intersection house the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Its builder was Edwin Manning, an architect who worked on the Library of Congress. In 1939, the house was owned by North Carolina Senator Robert Rice Reynolds, a Reynolds tobacco heir. His isolationist newspaper, American Vindicator, listed the house as its address. On September 11 2001, federal buildings closed, and senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson sheltered at Florida House with about 35 staffers. During the anthrax scare in the Senate office building, Nelson’s staff decamped to Florida House for a couple of weeks.
Despite the Chiles children’s question, Florida House is not, of course, technically an embassy. But it does perform many of the same functions that an embassy from a foreign country might. It’s a sanctuary for Floridians with its themed art and gracious living spaces. People host receptions and lunches. There’s an intern seminar series, and rotating exhibits of Florida artifacts. Floridians can use the computer, desk, and phone.
The house doesn’t get any tax money. Instead, private donations keep it running. And despite being on Capitol Hill, Florida House takes no sides. “You leave your hat at the door,” CEO and president Bart Hudson says, “because once you come through the door you are a Floridian.”
Chiles had a larger vision of Second Street as a state embassy row, says Hudson, and he thinks that would not be a bad idea. He points out that many states have societies, which have, for example, their own softball teams. States also maintain a presence in the Hall of States, where many state governments have Washington offices.. There was a brief moment in 1994 when it seemed like there would be an Illinois house, but that passed.
Ask Hudson what he’d like people to know about Florida House, and he has a simple answer: “That we exist.” Florida House is 43 years old, he says, so the fact that so many Floridians don’t know it’s there is “disheartening and challenging and our goal to correct.” Hudson says they see probably close to 15,000 people a year, but since there are 19 million people in Florida, he’d like more.