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Floridians Find Home Away From Home

Tom Williams/Roll Call Staff

On a street behind the stately Supreme Court building sits a white Victorian row house that might blend into the other elegant homes nearby — if it weren’t for the large sculpture of a candy-colored beach ball affixed to the front of the house. 

Or the large ceramic flowerpot full of oranges, lemons and tangerines that sits near the door.

Lettering on a green awning reads “Florida House,” and employees inside await guests with tall glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice.

For more than 35 years, Florida has done what no other state has: maintain an embassy on Capitol Hill. 

Florida House, a nonprofit, acts as a one-stop shop for Florida tourists, business travelers and state residents temporarily living in the District. It promotes Florida-related educational events and serves as a guide to D.C. and venue for special events. 

Located at 1 Second St. NE, the three-story embassy was founded by former Florida first lady Rhea Chiles in 1973. When she raised funds to buy the dilapidated property for $125,000, the floors had collapsed and the windows were boarded up. 

Now the house is furnished with plaid chairs and couches, dark wood furniture and seashells and starfish from Florida coasts. The walls are lined with original paintings depicting the Everglades, palm trees and beaches at sunset, all by a group of African-American artists from the 1950s known as the Florida Highwaymen. 

“Everything in the house is either from Florida or paid for by Floridians,” said Bart Hudson, president of Florida House since 1999.

Thank-you notes and letters from fifth-graders are tacked to the walls of the basement, evidence of the several thousand youngsters from Florida schools who visit the house annually to learn about the federal government. Florida-related objects are elegantly displayed behind glass, including one of three matching china sets commissioned by John Wanamaker (the other two sets sit in the White House and a Smithsonian museum). 

Framed pictures of the Florida famous, including Florida Gators football teams that won national championships, sit on mantels and side tables. 

The fancy digs are essentially like a country club, and “I’m from Florida” are the magic words used to gain entry. Any Floridian can drop by to pick up maps and brochures about D.C. and hear Hudson’s recommendations for the best touring spots — and sip some Sunshine State juice. Florida businesses can set up meetings in the space and use the wireless network and copy machine. 

Board members of the Florida House include recognizable names such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I), who has served as honorary chairman for four years, and the wives of Florida politicians such as Columba Bush, Pat Mica, Grace Nelson — all who act as senior vice chairwomen. 

Last week, Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott (R), whose wife will soon replace Crist as honorary chairman, took a tour of the house. 

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