The National History Center: An Update

Wm. Roger Louis, October 2002

Dear Fellow Members of the AHA:

Since the spring of 2000 the leadership of the AHA has been working toward the creation of a National History Center. I take this opportunity to bring you up to date. The accompanying mission statement defines the purpose and aims of the center, but I would also like to give you a more informal account from my own vantage point. As I do so, please bear in mind a fundamental point: the AHA is the sponsor of the National History Center, but the center itself is now legally incorporated as an independent nonprofit public trust. I mention this at the outset because I think it important to make clear that the center will not be a legal or financial liability to the AHA.

For the past three years I have been making monthly trips to Washington to discuss such things as projected budgets, the legal incorporation of the center, architectural design, and above all, plans for raising money. Now, a trip from Texas to Washington, D.C., nearly every month involves a lot of time and effort. I mention it only to emphasize the long-term commitment on the part of myself and others. I am committed to the project because I believe that the AHA and the profession at large would immensely benefit from the creation of a national history center in Washington. So also do the members of the center's AHA planning committee, which includes as members James Banner, the long-standing champion of a national center for history; Albert Beveridge III, legal counsel of the AHA; Prosser Gifford of the Library of Congress; Arnita Jones, executive director of the AHA; Stanley Katz of Princeton University (and former vice president of the AHA's Research Division); and Don Ritchie of the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Senate (and former AHA Council member).

When the project got underway, we had hoped that a Library of Congress building, the former St. Cecilia School, might provide a home for the center. For complicated legal and other reasons, this plan collapsed in the aftermath of September 11 when part of the building was commandeered for national security purposes. Far from regarding this development as a disaster, the planning committee reacted with a sense of liberation. There were many disadvantages to the St. Cecilia building. The physical circumstances of the building tended, for example, to drive the center's concept and purpose. We are now free to create a facility that fully meets our own needs rather than allowing the restrictions of a Library of Congress building to define the function of the center. We have under active consideration several other sites in Washington. I have myself recently visited the U.S. Naval Hospital of the Civil War era on Pennsylvania Avenue as well as the building that presently houses the Washington Historical Society near Dupont Circle.

Our exploratory plans have been made possible in part by a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to test the feasibility of creating the center. This enabled us to secure the professional guidance of two of Washington's most distinguished architects, George Hartman and Alexander Zaras, who have advised us not only on the possible design of the building but on how the use of space will help to define the function of the center. We have also been able to enlist as a consultant the former vice president for fund-raising and philanthropy at George Washington University, Michael Worth. Worth attends the monthly planning committee meetings and has given us excellent advice on structuring our campaign to raise the $25 million to $50 million that will be necessary to construct a new building or renovate an existing one, and to create the endowment necessary for the center's programs. As I have discussed in previous issues of Perspectives, the lower sum is the minimum needed to get the center up and running; the larger figure represents the amount necessary fully to endow all of the center's programs.

These are breathtaking sums, and it is fair to ask, especially in today's financial climate, whether we have a reasonable chance. My own answer remains guardedly optimistic. I have this positive outlook in part because of the help we have found within the historical profession. Within the AHA, we have created an alliance, for the first time as far as I know, of a group of distinguished historians who believe that a national history center will not only serve a national purpose but will be welcomed by historians throughout the world. Some of these historians are past presidents of the AHA and include John Hope Franklin, Natalie Zemon Davis, Bernard Bailyn, and John Coatsworth. I have conducted discussions on the prospect of the center at the annual meeting of the AHA in San Francisco and have held further discussions in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. At each of these meetings prominent historians such as Arthur Schlesinger jr., Ernest May, and Joyce Appleby have lent their support in realistically identifying major donors throughout the country who are known to be interested in history.

Over the course of the next several months we intend to focus on key prospects that have been identified by these explorations, including individual donors as well as public and private foundations. Raising the money for the center remains a colossal challenge. But we have made substantial progress. And I continue to believe that making the center a reality is a vision worthy of our time and our profession.

The AHA Council has unanimously approved the mission statement. It represents a refinement of earlier statements, but by its very nature it is a document that will continue to evolve and I would thus welcome your comments and suggestions.

—Wm. Roger Louis
AHA president, 2001–02