Kiplinger Research Library. Photo by the author.

After nearly a decade of publicized struggles at the Historical Society of Washington, a newfound optimism has emerged that this steward of the city’s past will not itself fade into history.

The organization shut down this summer, unable to pay its staff or afford its high electric bills and maintenance of its headquarters, the Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square.

After a failed attempt to create a City Museum in 2003, the organization struggled to brand itself or gain sufficient support from city politicians. Its voice waned in the active dialogue of a changing city. The close-knit membership of city activists, academics, community historians, and business leaders were left to speculate about the future of the organization.

But a new surge of energy, funding for a strategic plan, and a likely deal with the Washington Convention and Sports Authority have brought new hope.

Two public meetings later this month will guide the organization’s future. “We want to hear from the community on how we can best engage them in our mission to continue to protect the history of Washington,” said Julie Koczela, Chairman of HSW’s Board of Trustees. The Meyer Foundation is bankrolling the creation of a strategic plan that will determine “what the community wants out of the Historical Society of Washington,” according to Koczela.

Meanwhile, the Convention and Sports Authority will assume utility expenses and maintenance costs of the building and grounds while occupying the great hall, adjacent map room, basement, and upstairs office space. It will retain the ability to collect revenue from renting out the space, a popular venue for public and private events.

Koczela said an agreement with WCSA will help to stabilize the organization by ameliorating the restrictive operating and maintenance costs of the building, the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. This summer Koczela told the Post’s John Kelly, “The electric bills are $15,000 a month.” 

This operational transfer will allow HSW to focus exclusively on maintaining and making available its collection, growing organizational capacity, and once again becoming active in the community. HSW will maintain its space consisting of the Kiplinger Research Library, storage rooms, and office space of approximately 11,000 total square feet. Among other valuable documents, the library houses District real estate records and resident directories dating back over 125 years.

With the library director recently leaving for a position at a nearby college, HSW is searching for a replacement, but in the meantime plans are to re-open the library with a collection of dedicated volunteers and part-time staff.

With the District’s living history evolving every day, its past often framing conversations about what is or is not authentic, those concerned with our city’s future would do well to get involved with sustaining one of our city’s most valuable institutions.