Florida House, built over 100 years ago, has had many owners and an interesting past. Throughout the years, the embassy has received gifts of furniture, antiques and artwork. Today, Florida House volunteers, interns and employees are called upon to be docents, giving tours and relating stories and details of the personal history of the house and its belongings.
Edward Manning, an architect working on the Library of Congress which was built in 1898, built Florida House in 1891 for $5,000. Mr. Manning was an advocate of slum clearance. One of the structures he tore down for the Library was Abraham Lincoln's townhouse. Therefore, when Mr. Manning built the house, there was nothing between the house and the front steps of the Capitol. The Supreme Court and the Library of Congress had not been built at the time. For historical purposes, Florida House is still considered The Manning Home.
As one can imagine in a house built over 100 years ago, there have been numerous owners. Of particular interest is Senator Rice Reynolds of North Carolina, who owned the house as his residence in the early 1940's. While living here, Senator Reynolds married his fifth wife who was 25-years old to his 75. We attribute the mirror in the living room to the mother of the bride, Evelyn Walsh McLean. She gave the mirror to the couple as a wedding gift. Evelyn was the last person to own the Hope Diamond before Harry Winston bought it at auction and had it sent directly to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.
In the 1960's the house was divided into small rooms for use as a boarding house. We have learned that the former president of the University of Miami lived in the basement while he was attending school in Washington, DC.
In the late 1960's Lawton and Rhea Chiles were visiting Washington, DC with their young children. They got lost and found themselves on Embassy Row. One of the children said, "Let's go to Florida's embassy and they will tell us how to find our way." Mrs. Chiles explained that states didn't have embassies, only foreign countries did. The idea of an embassy, however, intrigued her.
Lawton Chiles was first elected to the Senate in 1972. He served for 18 years. During their first year in Washington, Mrs. Chiles was walking by 200 East Capitol Street. At the time the neighborhood was not safe and in terrible condition. For these reasons, most people did not come east of the Capitol in those days. Mrs. Chiles found the house in total disrepair—almost to the point of needing demolition. The second floor had caved in and the windows were boarded up. Homeless people were living in the basement. There was a "For Sale" sign on the property. Mrs. Chiles was amazed that anyone could purchase property with this location and view.
Mrs. Chiles remembered her child's comment about "Florida's Embassy" and with that as her vision, she arranged the purchase of the property. She raised money from across the state from Floridians, some of whom she did not know. Florida House was purchased for $125,000.
Still intact was the mirror brought to the house by the Reynolds and the stained glass above the windows in the living room.
When the house was built, the front door was on East Capitol, hence the address 200 East Capitol Street. When Florida House was established, the East Capitol doorway was sealed and Second Street became the functioning address. Mrs. Charles Schmidt from Boca Raton contributed to the renovation of the door on East Capitol, adding the iron steps that now lead to the garden.
Mrs. Chiles operated Florida House on a shoestring for the first ten years. In 1982 the beams holding up the third floor broke and everything came tumbling down. Major structural and interior renovation was done. At the same time the Board of Trustees decided the furnishings in the house should reflect that of a home built in 1891. They began to acquire the beautiful antiques and art that now fill the house. They did not, however, set a budget to go to auction to purchase furniture. Every piece of furniture and art is a gift from a Floridian. They have been given in honor of someone, in memory of someone or just because the benefactor loved Florida House.
The wooden louvered shutters were copied from a pair found on the property and thought to be original to the house. The Associated General Contractors of Florida provided workmen to measure the odd-shaped windows. Sixty-eight pairs of the wooden louvered shutters were then made for the 34 windows, with installation provided by the Association. The shutters were donated by Custom Shutters of Tampa—Ralph and Rodney Lynam.
The Baltimore secretary, circa 1800, in the living room is a gift from George and Gray Coulter of Jacksonville. Mr. Coulter was the chairman of the 1982 renovation. The secretary was the first piece to be given.
The Federal mahogany card table, circa 1800, was given by Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Kelly and Mr. John Boy.
The beautiful silk screen on the main floor was a gift from Mrs. Francis Wolfson of Miami. Mrs. Wolfson was an internationally-recognized artist. The Wolfsonian Museum is in Miami. The piece she created for Florida House depicts the mockingbird (the state bird) and the orange tree with blossoms (the state flower) and fruit. When former President George Bush was posted to China as an envoy, he and Mrs. Bush had to take gifts to the Chinese officials. Mrs. Bush had heard of the Wolfson painting and came to Florida House to view the silk screen. She chose pieces by Mrs. Wolfson to take with her to China. The Wolfson Foundation remains a great benefactor of Florida House.
Another painting on display at Florida House is an illustration of the view from the second floor window done by Mrs. Chiles. Depicting a view of the Capitol Dome during the winter season, the illustration is the artistic signature of Florida House. A portrait of Mrs. Chiles by Jacksonville artist Jean Warner Troemel hangs in the foyer.
The 1830 case clock in the foyer is a gift from an anonymous Miami donor.
The stairwell to the third floor contains plaques listing some of the earliest contributors to Florida House.
The third floor is particularly beautiful with many Palladian windows. The breakfront, the focal point of this room, is a gift from The Gainesville Citizens Committee for Florida House. The Limoges china is a gift from Millie Loth of Mt. Dora. She chose the china for herself for two reasons: first, she had been told the china had been owned by President Taft and second, she thought it looked like Jacqueline Kennedy's china. The Kittinger desk was donated by the Central Florida Council for Florida House.
The Presidential plate in the corner of the breakfront is a gift from President Clinton to Governor Chiles. President Clinton held a luncheon at the Library of Congress for the sitting governors prior to his first-term inauguration. The plates were gifts to the governors, and then Gov. Chiles donated his plate to Florida House as it compliments the Limoges china.
The Adams' mantle is particularly indicative of Florida with the carved shells and coral. It also fits well in a Washington house with it federal eagle in the center. The mantle is actually Irish in origin and is approximately 120 years old. Mrs. Chiles found the mantle in an antique store in Georgetown and donated it to Florida House.
In the early 1980's the Florida House Council at Lakeland commissioned rug artist Millks Mosseler to design the rug in front of the fireplace after the mantle. The rug was donated in memory of the Governor's sister, Jeannette Chiles Ruthven.
The John James Audubon print of a great white heron above the fireplace is a gift from the Orlando Chapter of the American Legion Women's Auxiliary. It is significant to Florida and Florida House because it features Key West in the horizon.
The painting on the west wall is also a depiction of Key West. It is by Beanie Backus, a renowned Florida artist. The painting is on loan from one of our Trustees.
The 1885 prints are editions of Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's illustrations. If you were standing on this property just before the house was built, you would have been part of the crowd depicted in the middle print of President Cleveland's swearing-in ceremony. The other prints depict the Old Senate Chamber and a detail of the Capitol Dome. These prints hung in Senator Chiles' office in Washington for 18 years and in Governor Chiles' office in Florida for eight years. In 1998, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Florida House, Governor and Mrs. Chiles gave the prints to Florida House.
The location of the house is certainly remarkable. We share the four corners of East Capitol and Second Street Northeast with the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library, with the US Capitol nestled between the court and library.
Florida House is not owned by the state of Florida but rather the people of the state through a nonprofit foundation. The foundation is managed by a Board of Trustees. No state or federal tax dollars support the house or its operations. Funding is provided by individual contributions from fellow Floridians, corporate sponsors throughout the state and the Board of Trustees.
Florida is the only state to have an"embassy" in Washington. Other states have tried, specifically Oklahoma, California, Illinois and Texas. All have failed. Now, the zoning regulations within the District of Columbia would prohibit a facility like Florida House. We are grandfathered and will exist as long as the generosity of Floridians support the concept.
It is the vision of Rhea Chiles that created and has sustained the house for these many years. She now serves as the Chairman Emeritus of Florida House and is still active on the Board. More than 100 people serve on the Board of Trustees, which is active in both Florida and Washington.
Approximately 10,000 guests visit the house each year. These guests include Floridians visiting Washington, school groups, state and federal legislators, Supreme Court Justices and members of the local and Florida business community. Florida House truly serves as a home-away-from home for Floridians in the nation's capital.