If theHistorical Society of Washington were a critically ill human being, its loved ones would be sitting in the hospital waiting room right now, nervously listening to the doctor fill them in on its condition.
“As you know,” the doctor would say, “the patient almost ate itself to death 10 years ago. There is simply no way a human being can swallow a three-story marble building and not be adversely affected. Then there was the cancerous tumor. We saw that coming and were able to remove it after just 18 months. But the patient was dangerously weakened by the whole experience. It didn’t help that it then stopped eating, severely reducing its intake of essential nutrients.
“We had no choice but to put the patient into a medically induced coma.”
And that’s where we are today. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Call it a financial organ transplant.
Okay, metaphor over. The bottom line is this: The once-public spaces of the grand building at Mount Vernon Square are shuttered. The staff of the society — about a half-dozen people — has been furloughed. The historical society’s Kiplinger Research Library — a repository of everything from historical D.C. photographs to old restaurant menus — is closed for the summer.
The problems really started in 1999, when the society’s board decided to move from the historic — yet oddly cramped — Heurich Mansion near Dupont Circle to the old Carnegie Library at Eighth and K streets NW. The building proved to be an anchor around the society’s neck.
“The electric bills are $15,000 a month,” Julie Koczela, the society’s treasurer, told me. “And when it snowed, we had to shovel the walks of that whole Mount Vernon Square. That’s very difficult for a volunteer organization.”
The society also overestimated the public’s appetite for a museum dedicated to the history of Washington. Opened in 2003, the City Museum turned out to be a bust and closed after a year and a half. Membership dues and grants could barely keep pace with the punishing infrastructure costs. The recession made things worse. A dalliance with a proposed music museum was an unnecessary distraction.
It must have been a blow in February when local collector Albert H. Small donated his extensive collection of Washingtoniana, along with $5 million to fund a museum, to George Washington University and not to the historical society. But with the straits it was in, there was no way the historical society could take it on.
With near-empty coffers, the society was forced to furlough its staff for two weeks in December. On May 1, another furlough.
But just this week, the Washington Convention and Sports Authority agreed to take over the building and pay the utilities. It will install a visitors center on the first floor and take over some of the office space. The Historical Society of Washington will keep the library, two exhibit galleries on the second floor and some office space.
“This is what we all think is the right mix,” said society trustee Austin Kiplinger, whose family name adorns the library. “I feel better about this thing than I have in quite a long time.”
Said Yvonne Carignan, the library director: “We can’t wait to reopen.”
That won’t be any sooner than Labor Day. What can you do to support the historical society when it’s back on firmer feet? For starters, pull up a seat next to me in the library and lose yourself in the past.
I’ve been delving into the history of summer camping in the Washington area, specifically the precursors to Camp Moss Hollow. I’ve found some lovely old pictures of little street urchins preparing for camp. Look for them in a future column. In the meantime, help support today’s campers. To donate to our annual campaign for Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids, go to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says “Give Now” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information.
Or you can mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, DC 20090-6237.
And head to any Clyde’s or the Old Ebbitt Grill today and order a dessert featuring fresh local blackberries. Proceeds benefit Camp Moss Hollow.