Right across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court and a short walk from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. stands a building known as the only “state embassy.”
The Victorian-style “Florida House” welcomes visitors with a cold glass of orange juice. It serves as a meeting place and cultural center, highlighting the many contributions of the Sunshine State. One of its most popular displays is the collection of state college footballs and helmets – including FIU’s with the iconic panther logo.
Built in 1891 and designed by the same architect who developed the U.S. Library of Congress, it boasts elegant rooms and a picturesque garden. Each piece of furniture and art is a gift from a Floridian. But the building wasn’t always that way, and that’s where a former Florida first lady comes in.
Back in the late 1960s, then-Florida state Senator Lawton Chiles was on vacation in Washington with his wife, Rhea, and their children when they got lost. One of the couple’s children said, “Let’s go to Florida’s embassy, and they will tell us where we are,” said Florida House Executive Director Diana Beckmann. “Mrs. Chiles explained that only foreign countries had embassies and that states did not. But the idea [of a state “embassy”] stayed with her.”
When Lawton Chiles was elected a U.S. senator in 1971, Rhea saw the building 1 Second St. NE and immediately visualized the Florida state flag flying outside the front door. Back then, the house had fallen into disrepair.
“When she saw it was on sale, she fundraised $120,000 in private money and put in $5000 of her own money,” added Beckmann. “They got the house in 1972, renovated it, and we have been opened since 1973.”
Florida House prides itself on being a “home away from home” for Floridians, often hosting events for Washington-based interns, showcasing art exhibits, and offering resources to visitors.
“We take no money from the state of Florida (nor from the federal government), and we are strongly non-partisan,” continued Beckmann. “We are not a line item on a budget that can be cut or a pet project of any administration.” Florida House is owned by a nonprofit foundation that is managed by a Board of Trustees with members representing the business, cultural, and philanthropic sectors in Florida. Funding comes from individuals, corporations, and non-profit organizations. Mrs. Chiles was chair emeritus of the house until her death in 2015.
Close to 10,000 guests visit the House each year – admission is free. Guests include state and federal legislators, Supreme Court justices, and Floridians visiting Washington.
“We want them to feel empowered, to be able to meet with their [Congressional] members,” Beckmann said. “We are so proud to create a warm and welcoming environment for Floridians.”