The 2018 Florida Tourism Hall of Fame inductee is the late Rhea Chiles, wife of former Florida Senator and Governor, Lawton Chiles. Known as an influential force in her husband’s policy initiatives, Rhea Chiles made many contributions to Florida tourism, including the establishment of Florida House, the Polk Museum of Art and the Studio at Gulf and Pine.
In the late 1960s, Rhea and Lawton Chiles were on vacation in Washington, D.C. with their young children when they became lost and found themselves on Embassy Row. One of the children said “Let’s go to Florida’s embassy and they will tell us where we are.” Rhea and Lawton explained that only foreign countries had embassies and states did not. The idea, however, intrigued Mrs. Chiles.
In 1972, the same year Lawton Chiles was first elected to the U.S. Senate, her idea came to life when she founded Florida House, the only state embassy in Washington, D.C. Located one block from the U.S. Capitol and across the street from the Supreme Court, Florida House provides hospitality and information to Floridians visiting the nation’s capital. Rhea Chiles served as president and CEO of the Florida House from 1973 to 1988, and as Chairman Emeritus until her death on November 8, 2015. Mrs. Chiles’ watercolor, “Window to Washington,” still remains the artistic signature of Florida House.
In the 1960s, Rhea Chiles was a primary founder of the Polk County Museum of Art. Located in Lakeland, Florida, and now known as the Polk Museum of Art, it is the largest and only nationally accredited visual arts organization in Polk County, and since 2010, has been the only Smithsonian Affiliate between Orlando and Tampa.
Rhea Chiles spent her retirement years on Anna Maria Island, where she developed and managed the cultural art gallery and event facility, Studio at Gulf and Pine. As a nod to the late artist, part of the studio’s permanent collection includes many of the Chiles family’s collection of paintings.
Rhea Chiles has, to this day, had a profound personal and professional impact on Florida’s tourism industry. It is our great honor to present the VISIT FLORIDA Tourism Hall of Fame Award posthumously to Rhea Chiles.