The Elegant Embassy

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, September 07, 2010 No Comment(s)

Washington, D.C. - People in our nation's capital admire Florida for many reasons. They like our weather, the fact that none of our college teams wear uniforms as ugly as Boise State and Virginia Tech did last night, and the fact that we elect people before they go to jail. Also we have the only state embassy in Washington.

That would be Florida House, conceived in 1973 by Rhea Chiles, wife of then-senator Lawton Chiles.

"Her idea was to have an embassy, a place for mom and dad and the kids when they visited Washington," says Bart Hudson, president and CEO of Florida House. "And that's still our primary focus. We get hundreds of kids, especially in the spring. We've had up to 200 here at one time."

Here is a big old house on 2nd Street, which has been converted into what is effectively an elegant club. It is a location to die for. From his office window, directly across from the Supreme Court, Hudson can see the Capitol, and beyond it the Washington Memorial. It is the envy of other states, several of whom tried and failed to duplicate Florida House. And yet when Rhea Chiles found this house it was abandoned, with floors caved in, in a neighborhood on top of the Capitol that was close to a slum. The neighborhood, known as Capitol Hill, was a disgrace – a run down and dangerous place next to our seat of government.

Which is something Washingtonians owes Florida. Florida House was one of the first buildings in the area to be rehabbed. It showed the potential of the Capitol Hill section and served as a role model for what has become a classic example of gentrification, stretching for blocks southeast. The section now is filled with charming homes which were once dilapidated. It is a vibrant mix of races, with many residents being young couples or students who have chosen to live conveniently and reversed the suburban trend which has led to beltway traffic jams among the worst in the country.

Hudson, a fourth generation from Florida's Panhandle, arrived 11 years ago – a bit too soon.

"I moved to Maryland because I couldn't find a place in Washington where I wanted to live," he says. "Today I would buy in D.C. "The Capitol Hill neighborhood is a good investment."

How good are the prices? Similar homes in other cities that might sell for $200,000 bring $500,000 and over in Washington. A young former Florida couple just paid $360,000 for a 1880s-era row house that needed to be totally rebuilt. And that price was more than the bank, who had it in foreclosure, was asking. They are literally rebuilding from the ground up. The rotted floor had to be replaced and since there was no basement, they were looking at dirt. And yet comparable houses just doors away, which have already been rehabbed sell for more than $500,000. There has been no housing bubble in the nation’s capital.

Back to Florida House. Although Rhea Chiles’ concept of a place for families remains in place, Florida House has also welcomed businessmen and organizations doing business in Washington with Internet services and anything they might want. Additionally, it's a popular site for receptions, often used by Florida’s elected officials. It’s also a cultural center. It currently is showing a collection of paintings by Florida’s famous Highwaymen, on loan from a Canadian collector.

The best part of this achievement is that it was done totally through private funds. Hudson says several other states have attempted to build their own embassies, but did not follow Florida House’s model. “They wanted to use state money and that just doesn’t work,” Hudson says. What Rhea Chiles started four decades ago has been continued by other congressional wives, prominent among them is Emilie Shaw, wife of former congressman Clay E. Shaw. She supported Florida House during her 26 years in Washington, and there is now a fountain in the garden on the premises in appreciation for her work.

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