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Floridians Find Home Away From Home

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. 

According to Hudson, just about every U.S. Senator and Representative from Florida has visited the house. Last month, Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R) and GOP Reps.-elect Steve Southerland, Daniel Webster, David Rivera and Sandy Adams, along with longtime GOP Reps. Jeff Miller, John Mica and Adam Putnam, dropped by the house for the Florida Seafood Celebration. Hudson said the campaign was intended to “support the industry that was so badly maligned” and highlight the recovering seafood market after the BP oil spill. 

In 2004, the organization raised $1 million for Florida victims of Hurricane Ivan. 

The house is also used for fancy cocktail parties and networking gatherings. It hosts weekly seminars during the summer for more than 100 interns working for the Florida Congressional delegation. They talk one-on-one with home-state Members about public policy in a spacious room on the second floor. 

Florida House also invites all the contenders of the Cherry Blossom Festival Princess Pageant to the House for parties, and Hudson said it’s not uncommon for wedding celebrations to commence at Florida House.

With all the glamour and utility of Florida House, which welcomes about 10,000 visitors annually, some may wonder why other states haven’t opened their own embassies. After all, Chiles had envisioned a street of state embassies to join her organization when she opened Florida House. 

But given the cost of Capitol Hill real estate, other embassy startups seem unlikely.

“We’re the only state to have such a facility,” Hudson said. “Other states have tried to open embassies, including California, Texas and Illinois, but they tried to do it out of state tax revenue.”

Hudson said he thinks it’s hard to justify spending taxpayer money on fancy state embassies in Washington in tough economic times. But Florida House is funded through individual donations, mostly small $25 gifts, and through its 90 board members — all Floridians — who pay at least $2,000 a person annually and raise additional money for the organization, he said.

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