Founded as the Columbia Historical Society in 1894, the Historical Society 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 main role of the early Society was to serve as a forum for members to present historical research, which was then published in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society. The members amassed manuscripts and other documents, but the growing collections presented difficulties. For more than 50 years, the Society made do with rented and donated rooms for offices and a library. Talented volunteers served as librarians and curators.
In 1954, the public library, which had been storing the collections, threatened eviction due to its own space problems. The Board appealed to the membership for a home. In 1955, Amelia Keyser Heurich, widow of prominent Washington brewer Christian Heurich, donated the family’s four-story mansion near Dupont Circle, which became the Society’s headquarters.
The programs and reach of the Columbia Historical Society continued to expand, and in 1989, the 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 Society’s semi-annual scholarly journal.
In 1999, the United States Congress granted a 100-year lease of the historic Carnegie Library at Mt. Vernon Square to the Society for the opening of a new City Museum. The project closed in 2004 but the Carnegie continues to house the Society’s research library, rotating exhibits, and offices. Ninety percent of the Society’s historic collections, which include artworks, documents, maps, objects, and over 100,000 photographs, are stored on-site.
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 Society’s collections. The Society offers hands-on research workshops with students and community groups, including D.C. Public Charter Schools and universities that enhance research skills and promote life-long learning.
The Society’s other programs bring together scholars, technical experts, and the general public to present D.C. history to a wide audience. Programs include: the Urban Photography Series, which feature workshops and neighborhood tours to actively document neighborhoods throughout the city; Wikipedia “Edit-a-thons” that use the Society’s collections to update the internet encyclopedia; and lively author talks and discussion panels that engage the public to explore present-day issues through historical perspectives.