In the late 1960s, Rhea and Lawton Chiles were on vacation in Washington D.C. with their young children. They were lost and found themselves on Embassy Row. One of the children said “Let’s go to Florida’s embassy, and they will tell us where we are.” They explained that only foreign countries had embassies and that states did not. The idea, however, intrigued Mrs. Chiles.
Lawton Chiles was first elected to the Senate in 1972, serving for eighteen years. Walking by a house at 200 East Capitol Street in what was then an unsafe neighborhood, Mrs. Chiles noticed a For Sale sign in the window. The house was in total disrepair – almost to the point of needing demolition. The second floor had fallen, the windows were boarded up and homeless people were living in the basement. Her child’s comment about “Florida’s Embassy” immediately came to mind. With that as her vision, she arranged the purchase of the property with $5,000 of her own money and $120,000 raised from friends in Florida.
An architect working on the Library of Congress, Edwin C. Manning, built the Victorian-style row house in 1891 as his residence. The cost was $5,000. For historical purposes, Florida House is still considered The Manning Home. When Mr. Manning built the house, the land between the house and the front steps of the Capitol was vacant. The Supreme Court had not been built and the Library of Congress was under construction.
Mr. Manning sold the home to William Michael and his wife, Nannie. They lived in the lower level of the townhouse and maintained the second and third floors as a rooming house for income. Mr. Michael started many businesses in D.C. and owned a dairy, a 5¢ & 10¢ store, a movie theater, and several pieces of real estate. Senator Rice Reynolds of North Carolina bought the house for $25,000 in 1942. While living here Senator Reynolds married his fifth wife, who was 25-years old to his 75. We attribute the mirror in the living room to the mother of the bride, Evelyn Walsh McLean, as a wedding gift to the couple. Mrs. McLean was the last person to own the Hope Diamond before Harry Winston bought it at auction and had it sent directly to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.
In the 1960’s the house was divided into small rooms for use as a boarding house. We have learned that the former president of the University of Miami lived in the basement while he was attending school in Washington, DC.
After purchasing the house, Mrs. Chiles supervised the historic restoration of the 100-year-old Manning House that came to be Florida House. She preferred the sound of Number One Second Street over the original address of 200 East Capitol Street so you actually enter the house from the back. Guests pass under the beautiful stained glass window with the number 200 over the original front door as they head into the garden. The location of the house is certainly remarkable. We share the four corners of East Capitol Street and Second Street, NE, with the Supreme Court, the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, and the Folger Shakespeare Museum.
Mrs. Chiles operated Florida House on a shoestring for the first ten years. In 1982 the beams holding up the third floor broke and everything came tumbling down. Major structural and interior renovation was done. At the same time the Board of Trustees decided the furnishings in the house should reflect that of a home built in 1891. They began to acquire the beautiful antiques and art that now fill the house. Many of the furnishings have been given in honor of someone, in memory of someone or just because the benefactor loved Florida House.
Recently the house has begun another renovation, installing a new roof, 46 custom windows, HVAC and electrical panel. With donations from Floridians of $18.91 on Giving Tuesday and the generosity of Floridians, the foyer was renovated. As funding becomes available, new flooring, upholstery and stripping the wallpaper are on the wish list.
Mrs. Chiles partnered with her husband, Lawton Chiles, during his 55 years of public service. Lawton served as a Florida State Representative, United States Senator and the Governor of Florida. Rhea served as the president and CEO of Florida House from 1973 until 1988. She served as Chairman Emeritus to the only state embassy in the nation until her death on November 8, 2015. A practicing artist, Mrs. Chiles watercolor, “Window to Washington,” depicting the beautiful view of the Capitol from the upstairs window, is the artistic signature of Florida House.
Approximately 10,000 guests visit the house each year. These guests include Floridians visiting Washington, school groups, state and federal legislators, Supreme Court Justices and members of the local and Florida business community. For over 40 years Florida House has been of service to Floridians and their guests, a home-away-from in the nation’s capital.