The John A. Wilson Building in northwest Washington, D.C., acts as the place where local government functions but it also has historic exhibits and displays similar to a museum.
“When people come to Washington, they can come tour the Wilson Building,” said Joshua Gibson, the D.C. Council’s communications director and public information officer. “I know we cannot compete with the Smithsonian or some of the other prominent museums in the city but we have something for people interested in local history.”
Gibson serves functionally as the building’s archivist. He compiles information and documents information about the building. In his office, there are a number of historic newspaper articles, signs, political campaign buttons and posters and postcards signifying the District’s political history and the building.
Many visitors come to the building to visit their council members or members of the mayoral administration and attend hearings and news conferences. However, Gibson has long encouraged people to go beyond official business and get to know the contents inside the building.
District officials commissioned the building of the then-District Building in 1904. The construction finished in 1908 and it immediately operated as the place where District residents or stakeholders took care of their affairs in addition to where the three-member commission that governed the city deliberated. In 1994, the council renamed the District Building the John A. Wilson Building out of the memory of the late council chairman.
Gibson said the management and maintenance of the building can be considered somewhat complicated.
“The Wilson Building serves as our statehouse, county seat and city hall,” he said. “It is one building but plays three roles. It is the simultaneous headquarters for all three levels of government. Both the mayor and the council function here. Technically, the council runs the Wilson Building. However, the executive branch administers the building. It is a shared building.”
When a visitor enters the building on the first floor, they notice the huge painting of a smiling Wilson greeting them. Along the corridor on the first floor between the offices, however, are photos of the legislators together during the council periods.
“We call those the class photos,” Gibson said. “Those photos have been done for as long as there has been a council.”
Other noteworthy exhibits include pro-statehood and self-autonomy political cartoons by Clifford K. Berryman, an early and mid-20th century cartoonist who worked for the Washington Post and the Washington Star. On the ground floor, there are photos depicting the District’s quest for statehood throughout its history. Throughout the building, photos had been obtained from such sources as the Washington Star collection of the D.C. Public Library and the shuttered Cochran Gallery of Art. The ground floor also houses signs talking about the history of the building and a bell given by Bangkok, Thailand officials acknowledging the city’s struggle for self-determination. Several years ago, District journalist Bill Rice and WRC-TV (Channel 4) reporter Mark Seagraves worked with Gibson to fully restore the World War II Memorial plaque, located on the ground floor.
“These were folks who served in World War II who worked in the District government, “Gibson said.
On the fifth floor, where the council meets and offices of the executive branch and the lawmakers are housed, there are signs revealing the city’s history.
Gibson spoke about the building’s availability to tourists.
“The building has always been open to the public even though the coronavirus pandemic closed it down for a while,” he said.
Gibson said he conducts tours of the building but people can have a council member or staffer request a tour. He said information about the building appears on the council’s website. In the near future, Gibson said he would like to have a brochure about the building’s history.
“I would also like to create a self-guided walking tour where people can see where things are located,” he said.