Founded as the Columbia Historical Society in 1894, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. started as a group of 36 men and women dedicated to the “collection, preservation, and diffusion of knowledge respecting the history and topography of the District of Columbia and national history and biography.” The organization aimed to collect “the scattered and rapidly disappearing records of events and individuals prominent in the history of the city and District.”
The early Historical Society’s main role was a forum for members to present historical research, the Records of the Columbia Historical Society published their research. The members amassed manuscripts and other documents, but the growing collections presented difficulties. For more than 50 years, the Historical Society used rented and donated rooms for its offices and library. Talented volunteers served as librarians and curators.
In 1954, the central public library, located in the Carnegie Library at Mt. Vernon Square, threatened eviction due to space problems. The Historical Society’s board of trustees appealed to its members for a home. In 1955, Amelia Keyser Heurich, widow of prominent local brewer Christian Heurich, donated the family’s four-story mansion near Dupont Circle, headquarters until 2003.
The programs and reach of the Columbia Historical Society continued to expand, and in 1989, the Historical Society announced its new name: The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The name change was announced with the first issue of Washington History, the organization’s semi-annual scholarly journal.
In 1999, the United States Congress granted a 99-year lease of the historic Carnegie Library at Mt. Vernon Square to the Historical Society for the opening of a new urban history museum. The project, called “The City Museum,” closed in 2004. However, the Carnegie Library continues to house the Historical Society’s research library, rotating exhibits, and offices. The organization’s collections include artworks, documents, maps, objects, and over 100,000 photographs.
Over the past decade, the role of the Historical Society has continued to evolve as an educational and research institution. The permanent exhibition, Window to Washington, traces the development of the District’s built environment and serves as an introduction to the Historical Society’s collections. The organization engages local students and community groups, including D.C. Public Charter Schools and universities, with interactive hands-on workshops to enhance research skills and promote life-long learning.
The Historical Society also develops civic engagement forums with scholars, experts and the public to discuss local history. On-going programs include:
- Conferences and Seminars
- Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies in partnership with the DC Public Library and the George Washington University Gelman Library
- Author Talks
- Lunchtime Collections Programs
- Members Only Special Events
- Educational Programs for Teachers and Students
- Teacher Profiles
- Third-Grade Students learning modules
- Events and Annual Celebrations
- Anniversary of the Historical Society
- Emancipation Day Annual Celebration (April 16)
- Making D.C. History Awards
- Visionary Historian Award
- For the Record: Changing D.C. at the Carnegie Library
- For the Record: The Art of Lily Spandorf
- Investigating Where We Live in partnership with the National Building Museum
- Window to Washington at the Carnegie Library
- Washington History magazine
- Conservation Workshops
- House History Workshops in partnership with the DC Public Library and Humanities DC
- Urban History
- Urban Photography
- Wikipedia “Edit-a-thons” and other digital programs and initiatives