Historical Society to Lose Crypt Kiosk

Posted September 19, 2008 at 6:34pm

The opening of the Capitol Visitor Center this fall may put the long-standing and well-known United States Capitol Historical Society in jeopardy.

For 40 years, the group has sold gifts and knick-knacks in the Capitol’s halls, raising money for lectures and exhibits on the history and architecture of the Capitol.

But on Oct. 10, its kiosk in the Capitol’s crypt will be gone, and so far the group has no space in the CVC.

That leaves the Society without one-third of its income and means at least six people will lose their full-time jobs, society President Ron Sarasin said.

“I think we’re going to struggle for awhile, and hopefully we’ll be able to get through this and stay on solid footing. If not, we’re out of business,” said Sarasin, a former Republican Congressman from Connecticut. “We’re in business to support the mission. If we can’t do the type programming that’s important to our mission, then we might as well close.”

The historical society was founded in 1962 by then-Rep. Fred Schwengel (R-Iowa), who recruited fellow Members to join. Since then, the group has been intrinsically tied to Congress and the Capitol, sometimes buying historical artifacts for its hallways and once even commissioning artist Allyn Cox to paint the ceiling in what is now known as the “Cox Corridor.”

But it’s a nonprofit and, while created by Congress, receives no federal funding.

For years, the society was the only avenue for learning about the Capitol’s history. The group organizes lectures, publishes history books and hosts receptions that honor current and previous Members.

But with the opening of the CVC, visitors will have a whole new way to learn about the history of Congress. They will be able to see artifacts such as Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque — used to support the casket of everyone who lies in state — and take tours from knowledgeable guides.

“The visitors’ center is going to be wonderful. We think it’s going to be a great new center,” Sarasin said. “We just wish we had a part of it.”

Why the society doesn’t have more of a role in the CVC — especially considering the center’s focus on the Capitol’s history — is unclear.

When the Architect of the Capitol first began planning the center a decade ago, the society was slated to run the gift shop, Sarasin said. But over the years, that became two kiosks, then one kiosk and now an offer of a few shelves in one of the CVC-run stores.

“When they finally got around to [building] this visitors’ center, we were not a part of that process. It was always the expectation on our part, and seemingly on everyone else’s part, that we’d have some role there,” Sarasin said. But “the details were never worked out and we never got to that point.”

The group’s office on Maryland Avenue reeks of history. Desks are full of historical knick-knacks, while the walls are covered in framed items such as a photo of the Capitol from the 19th century and Cox’s sketches.

About 23 people work at the organization, among stacks of paper and historical artifacts, but Sarasin said it has become difficult to keep Members focused on the group through all the Capitol’s changes and the transition to a new Congress.

“It’s been a problem trying to get on the radar and also to stay on the radar,” he said. “And [Members] all have their own issues and other things to worry about other than the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.”

The group may still be able to gain some public display in the Capitol Visitor Center.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) supports a proposal that the society sell their more unique items on dedicated shelf space in one of the CVC’s gift shops, said her spokesman, Howard Gantman.

So far, no agreement has been reached.

“There has been negotiations,” Gantman said. “We’d been urging the Capitol Historical Society that there could be way of meeting their revenue needs and also provide an outlet for their more interesting items.”

The society pays for its programs through three main revenue sources: generous donors, an annual golf tournament and the kiosk. All in all, it’s annual budget it about $3.5 million.

Some of the items the society sells are unique, such as the annual Congressional Christmas ornaments and bookends made out of the old marble House steps. But most of the money, Sarasin said, comes from impulse purchases in the Capitol kiosk — the light-up pens, the pack of playing cards, the souvenir chocolates.

“Beyond the dollars that came out of it, which were obviously significant, it was where we showed the flag,” Sarasin said. “It was where people realized there is a U.S. Capitol Historical Society.”

In any case, the society will have to find other means to fill the gap, perhaps by persuading donors — some who give $5,000 or $10,000 — to give more.

In return, the society often offers such donors tours of the Capitol, thanks to badges that give them the same access as staffers. That access is technically tied to their status as vendors.

But Sarasin said he expected to be able to keep those badges even after the kiosk closed and the badges expire in January.

House Administration Committee spokesman Kyle Anderson said those badges were tied to the ongoing negotiations on how and whether to include the society’s items in the CVC gift shop.

“We’re anxious,” Sarasin said. “We’re in the business of selling stuff, and we want to sell our merchandise to visitors.”