Capitol Historical Society seeks place for CVC kiosk

The change in congressional leadership has made it unclear whether the Capitol Historical Society will have a place at the Capitol Visitors Center (CVC).

The non-profit group said it had been operating with an understanding from Republican leadership that it would have two 200-square-foot spots on the CVC’s lower level.

But with new leaders and, soon, a new Architect of the Capitol, the society must make its case all over again.
“Nothing had been set in stone,” CHS President Ronald A. Sarasin said. “Other people are now in charge.”

Currently, the society has a kiosk in the Crypt, where it sells everything from “hook-a-charm” bangle bracelets to its signature item: bookends made from the marble steps of the Capitol (the stairs were replaced with granite in the early 1990s).

When the CVC opens — slated for the summer of 2008 — the society’s part of the Crypt will serve as the entryway to the Capitol. So the society’s kiosk is under pressure to move.

No matter what, it will be smaller than the House and Senate gift shops, which are each expected to fill about 2,000 square feet on the more heavily trafficked upper level.

“This will be the first time we’re competing with the bigger entities,” Sarasin said.

Before that happens, new officials will have to get on board with allocating Sarasin’s group that most precious of Hill resources — real estate.

“We’ve been meeting with people, talking about where we thought we were,” Sarasin said. “We’re waiting for the process to keep moving. We certainly want to remain in the Capitol. We’ve been there for about 35 years.”

There had been discussions about putting the society’s merchandise in a special area of the larger gift shops, but Sarasin said the larger, more expensive merchandise sold by the society didn’t mesh well with the impulse items to be sold there.
“We ran the numbers and it won’t work,” Sarasin said. “People won’t want to schlep around marble bookends.”

Federal law grants the society an informational kiosk at the Capitol. The group was founded in 1962 because then-Rep. Fred Schwengel of Iowa, a former high school history teacher, wanted visitors “to catch something of the fire that burned in the hearts of those who serve here.”

It was chartered to provide history about the building itself and craft merchandise related to the Capitol. In addition to running the kiosk, the group hosts educational symposia and gala dinners.

The society has sterling connections on Capitol Hill. Suzie Dicks, wife of Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), is the general secretary. Its board of trustees is a who’s who of Washington, and includes Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and PhRMA chief Billy Tauzin.

Sales at the Capitol kiosk account for about a third of the society’s budget. They declined after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the number of visitors in the Capitol was strictly controlled.