After almost two centuries as the nation's capital, Washington will at last have a city museum that celebrates its past and present.

It will house not only the history of presidents and politics but also the history of Washington neighborhoods, ethnic groups, arts, businesses, education and civic organizations.

In the 1970s, when the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was being built, many suggested that the Carnegie Central Library building on Mount Vernon Square be used as a much-needed city museum. The Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, the City Council and the D.C. General Services Department, among others, turned the idea down. Instead, since the completion of the King library, the Carnegie has been used by the University of the District of Columbia.

This month the City Museum idea became a reality when Mayor Anthony Williams gave the key to the 1903 building to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Barbara Franco, the society's executive director and longtime City Museum advocate, told the Chronicler that work on the building's conversion will begin in 2001, with its theater, galleries, library and education wing to open in 2003.

"Another less documented history of the city flourishes in the shadow of the monuments," Franco said, explaining the concept of the museum. "Unlike the unchanging monuments, the social history of the city presents another picture of America--one of change, conflict and diversity."

A $2 million congressional appropriation is to be matched with $11 million in private funding and a hoped-for $2 million contribution from the Convention Center Authority. The nearby new convention center also is scheduled to open in 2003.

Since 1894, the Historical Society has valiantly tried to preserve the city's past. Nevertheless, history has outgrown the society's handsome Heurich Mansion at 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW. The magnificent Carnegie Library, at New York and Massachusetts avenues NW, is far more spacious.

The library began to take shape when philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, responding to a suggestion by Public Library Trustees Board Vice Chairman B.H. Warner, offered to give $250,000 to build it if Congress would provide the site, complete construction within three years and maintain free library service. Carnegie later added $50,000 to his gift. (He also gave funds for the Takoma Park, Southeastern and Mount Pleasant library branches.)

According to the Jan. 26, 1899, Congressional Record, during the debate over the site Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman (D-Md.) protested placing the library on the square between Seventh and Ninth streets.

He said it was "a place of resort for people unable to go to the country, a spot of beauty for the whole town. . . . It has only been a few years and within my time that the Government had it used as a market place. The market buildings were torn down by an order of the local government, because of which we have since paid a large amount to satisfy claims for damages. . . . There is that square today, a spot of beauty, a resort and to have any public building, no matter how laudable the purpose, placed upon it is, I think, a great misfortune."

Sen. James McMillan (R-Mich.), who became known for the McMillan Parks Plan, retorted that the "people of the District of Columbia unite almost to a man in recommending this site to Congress." He added that it was a good location because "street cars run on both sides of it, and there is plenty of space to erect this beautiful library building and not interfere at all with the square."

His side won. After a national competition entered by 24 architects in 1899, the library was designed by New York architects Ackerman and Ross in the Beaux-Arts style popularized by the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. President Theodore Roosevelt formally dedicated the library on Jan. 7, 1903. Foreshadowing the history museum to come, the building sheltered the Washingtoniana Collection.

The National Register of Historic Places calls it "an excellent example of the neoclassicism characteristic of the period," citing its symmetry. The building is three stories high, with pink Milford granite on the lower floors and white Vermont marble on the upper exterior.

The marble carvings and other decorations were made from models designed by artist Philip Martiny. Two cherubs hold a shield above the entrance door within a central arch. The 50,000-square-foot interior is embellished by a barrel-vaulted ceiling and classical white marble stairways with ornamental railings. The square piers in the lobby support beams lettered with the names of great writers and thinkers.

At the July 15 ceremony announcing the historical society's 99-year lease of the library as a city museum, former mayor Walter Washington and publisher Austin Kiplinger were introduced as co-chairmen of the Committee for a City Museum, in charge of raising funds, according to Post reporter Linda Wheeler.

"People breathe and work and die here in the whole city," Washington said, "and we need to tell their story, the story of the real life."