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New hope emerges for the Historical Society

After nearly a decade of publicized struggles at the Historical Society of Washington, a newfound optimism has emerged that this steward of the city's past will not itself fade into history.

Kiplinger Research Library. Photo by the author.

The organization shut down this summer, unable to pay its staff or afford its high electric bills and maintenance of its headquarters, the Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square.

After a failed attempt to create a City Museum in 2003, the organization struggled to brand itself or gain sufficient support from city politicians. Its voice waned in the active dialogue of a changing city. The close-knit membership of city activists, academics, community historians, and business leaders were left to speculate about the future of the organization.

But a new surge of energy, funding for a strategic plan, and a likely deal with the Washington Convention and Sports Authority have brought new hope.

Two public meetings later this month will guide the organization's future. "We want to hear from the community on how we can best engage them in our mission to continue to protect the history of Washington," said Julie Koczela, Chairman of HSW's Board of Trustees. The Meyer Foundation is bankrolling the creation of a strategic plan that will determine "what the community wants out of the Historical Society of Washington," according to Koczela.

Meanwhile, the Convention and Sports Authority will assume utility expenses and maintenance costs of the building and grounds while occupying the great hall, adjacent map room, basement, and upstairs office space. It will retain the ability to collect revenue from renting out the space, a popular venue for public and private events.

Koczela said an agreement with WCSA will help to stabilize the organization by ameliorating the restrictive operating and maintenance costs of the building, the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. This summer Koczela told the Post's John Kelly, "The electric bills are $15,000 a month."

This operational transfer will allow HSW to focus exclusively on maintaining and making available its collection, growing organizational capacity, and once again becoming active in the community. HSW will maintain its space consisting of the Kiplinger Research Library, storage rooms, and office space of approximately 11,000 total square feet. Among other valuable documents, the library houses District real estate records and resident directories dating back over 125 years.

With the library director recently leaving for a position at a nearby college, HSW is searching for a replacement, but in the meantime plans are to re-open the library with a collection of dedicated volunteers and part-time staff.

With the District's living history evolving every day, its past often framing conversations about what is or is not authentic, those concerned with our city's future would do well to get involved with sustaining one of our city's most valuable institutions.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Thanks for the update. I am (was?) a member of the historical society. I liked the resources they offered, like ther journal and really great annual conference. I think they over-reached with the museum though. I'd like to see them scale back and stay a vital resource to those who are interested in the city's history.

by daltonminimum on Sep 9, 2011 9:28 pm • linkreport

They should consider adding solar panels to the roof to reduce their electricity bills. Adding a for profit outdoor cafe on the plaza in front of the building would provide an amenity for the conventioneers and DC residents and nearby office workers.

by Anonymous on Sep 10, 2011 7:21 am • linkreport

Part of the reason the Historical Society failed was its dependence on earmarks from the City Council. Once that spigot was turned off, the organization plummeted. I thought they did some neat stuff, but then they got lazy and all their did was the annual celebration where they hobnobbed with Councilmembers, gave them honorary awards, and then asked for more taxpayer money and subsidies.

The Carnegie Library is a fantastic space that hasn't been well utilized in decades (partly, I think, because of confusion as to who between DC and NPS owns the library, the sidewalks, and the land).

After the Convention Center Mega Hotel is built across the street & the AAMC building is built on the other side of the street, that Library and Square has great potential. The question is who is going to be responsible for it reaching that potential? And will they be able to do so without becoming dependent on taxpayer subsidies?

by Fritz on Sep 10, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

I emailed them once for help investigating the history of my current house. They more or less said, 'go to the library'. If they want to be a relevant resource, they need to be a resource. I would have easily paid $50-100 for all the historical information they could dig up on my house (permits, owners, residents, images, etc.) You do enough of those, you can not only bring in money, you can build good will during budget appropriations season.

But it all starts with a vision and a will. When you put the wrong people in charge of organizations, you get poor results.

by eb on Sep 12, 2011 10:44 am • linkreport

I'll be at the Thursday meeting. We NEED a strong, functioning historical society in the city.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 21, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

Yes. This is potentially great news! I love that old building.

by Ghosts of DC on Jan 11, 2012 6:54 pm • linkreport

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