History of the Historical Society of Washington, DC
The Columbia Historical Society, as it was called until 1988, was founded in 1894 by a group of 36 men and women, with the following mission: "Its objects shall be the collection, preservation, and diffusion of knowledge respecting the history and topography of the District of Columbia and national history and biography." The organization had as its goal "collecting the scattered and rapidly disappearing records of events and individuals prominent in the history of the city and District."
From the outset, this was a membership organization. Members gathered to listen to each other deliver papers. The Records of the Columbia Historical Society published these papers and other items of interest to members. It was also a collecting organization, amassing library and manuscript collections virtually from the start.
By 1899 the new organization had 108 members, all but 13 men, and all but 7 residents of Northwest Washington. Although African Americans constituted one-third of the city's population, at that time the membership of the Columbia Historical Society was all white in a segregated city.
Membership dues went largely to support the publication of the Records, which remain one of the best collections of information on the history of the city. These hard-bound volumes appeared every year until 1922, and thereafter every two or three years, and are currently available in our Research Library.
The growing collections began to present difficulties almost immediately. For more than 50 years, the Society made do with rented and donated rooms for offices and library. In the late 1940s, a bill to finance reassembly of Francis Scott Key's home and give it to the Society passed Congress, but President Truman vetoed it for budgetary reasons. Through these years, talented volunteers served as librarians and curators. A professional was appointed in 1947, and he promulgated a collecting policy and created the first catalogue. In 1954, the public library, which had been storing the collections, threatened eviction due to its own space problems. The Board appealed to the membership for a home. In 1955, Amelia Keyser Heurich, widow of brewer Christian Heurich, gave the family's four-story mansion to the Society. It took possession the following year when Mrs. Heurich died.
With the house came staff. The first director was hired in 1959, although most of the work was done from the office of the president of the board, Ulysses S. Grant III, who served from 1952 to 1968. For many years the house chairman lived on the third floor and rented offices in the building to other historical and patriotic organizations. Space was available, however, for a library in the mansion, which housed the book, manuscript, photograph and other collections.
Grant died in 1968, ending an era for the Society. In 1975, an innovative real estate transaction produced a significant endowment, which was used to hire the first full-time, professional historian as executive director, Perry Fisher. Fisher used the renewed interest in the nation's past stimulated by the U.S. Bicentennial to increase the Society's services to the general public as well as its membership. In the 1980s, the Society conducted its first major fundraising campaign, raising more than a million dollars to match a $300,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment from the Humanities. The aging building underwent restoration and a long-awaited elevator was installed, making all five floors easily accessible.
The programs and reach of the Columbia Historical Society continued to expand, and in 1989, under the leadership of board president Kathryn Schneider Smith and director Jane North, the Society announced its new name: The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The name change was announced with the first issue of Washington History, a semi-annual magazine that continues the publishing traditions of the Records, but in a more modern and lively format. A second fundraising campaign made it possible to move the library from the cramped second floor to larger quarters on the top two floors of the house and to begin a library endowment. The campaign also funded the creation of two permanent galleries for changing exhibits on Washington history.
Over the past decade, the role of the Historical Society has continued to evolve as an educational institution. The Historical Society has, for several years, sponsored National History Day competitions in the city's schools. Programs offered by the Society include walking tours and presentations on neighborhoods across the city. In addition to providing services to individual researchers, the Society's library conducts workshops introducing the general public to the satisfaction of using primary sources to discover the histories of their homes, businesses and churches.
Under the direction of Barbara Franco, who joined the Historical Society in 1995, the Society began establishing community partnerships. Working with the Humanities Council and former Historical Society board member Kathryn Schneider Smith, the Society helped to bring 80 sites and cultural organizations across the city together to form the Heritage Tourism Coalition.
During this time, the Historical Society's Board made a commitment to pursue a long time dream of city residents to establish a museum devoted to the city's own history.
In 1998, Monica Scott Beckham, Vice President of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. went before the Chairman and members of the House of Representatives Appropriations Sub-committee to seek federal appropriations for a City Museum of Washington, D.C. Congress appropriated $2,000,000 in 1999 "provided that the District of Columbia shall lease the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square to the Society . . . for 99 years at $1 per year . . ." Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced on July 14, 1999 the creation of the City Museum of Washington, D.C. in the historical landmark Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square.
The City Museum opened in May 2003. Although the museum closed at the end of 2004, the Historical Society continues to serve the Washington community through its library, publications, and exhibits.
Based on two articles from Washington History, Volume 6, Number 2, fall/winter 1994-95: Kathryn Allamong Jacob, To Gather and Preserve . . ., and Kathryn Schneider Smith, Today's Historical Society; and an unpublished report by Laura Roberts.