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Facilities In Focus: The National Archives Building

On the 4th of July, millions of Americans celebrate Independence Day, which honors the United States’ rich history and birth as an independent nation. This holiday observes July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress approved the final wording on the Declaration of Independence. Today, the Declaration (along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) is available for public viewing in the National Archives Building, located in Washington D.C.

The National Archives is well known not only for the historical documents it holds, but also for its stunning architecture and cutting-edge security measures. To celebrate the 4th of July, we’re taking a look at the construction of the National Archives, and how this facility preserves evidence of America’s history.

Determining a Way to Protect the Nation’s Most Valuable Records

Whereas today’s facility managers have the luxury of digitizing most of their building documents, the staff who manage documents for the country had a totally different challenge: the fact that they had to preserve delicate, physical pieces of information. The history of the National Archives Building began in the 1800s, when historians and elected officials campaigned for a central archive that would hold the federal government’s most critical historical documents. Without secure storage, these documents were in grave danger of permanent damage, loss, theft and improper housing. Congress authorized the construction of the National Archives Building by passing the Public Buildings Act in 1926.

Construction of National Archives Building in 1933Construction of the National Archives Building in 1933 - from the National Archives Catalog

In 1928, Congress appropriated $8,750,000 for the land and construction of the National Archives Building. To compare, this budget would equal nearly $122 million dollars today! In 1933, construction began on the building. Andrew Mellon, who served as Secretary of the Treasury at the time, assembled a group of leading architects and indicated design elements he wanted to include in the building’s design, including limestone facades, red tile roofs and classical colonnades.

Challenges When Designing and Constructing a Historical Fortress

Compared to other Federal buildings of the time, the National Archives proved more difficult to design. This building wasn’t just an office space; it was meant to protect the nation’s most important and irreplaceable records. Architects on the project created many unsuccessful design plans before ultimately deciding on one that was deemed most secure.

In addition to the Archive’s design, determining the location for the building was also difficult. The site of the Archives was moved twice before the final location was chosen. It was decided that the National Archives would be situated halfway between the White House and the Capitol. This location was ideal, as the Archives would hold records from both of these institutions.

The design of the Archives, created by Architect John Russel Pope, included many practical and symbolic features, including highly decorative architectural features, giant Corinthian columns, 40-foot bronze doors and inscriptions representing the building's historical importance.

National Archives Building foundation 1932National Archives Building foundation in 1932 - from the National Archives Catalog

As construction began, one issue that builders faced was how to protect the building’s foundation against possible flooding from the Old Tiber Creek bed, which runs under the National Archives Building. Contractors took steps to stabilize the soil, then constructed a huge concrete bowl to serve as a foundation.

Notable Asset Facts about the National Archives

Due to its ornate design, the National Archives’ exterior took more than four years to finish and required the expertise of many workers, including sculptors, model makers, air-conditioning contractors and steel workers. The building’s interior included installation of specialized air-handling systems and filters, reinforced flooring and thousands of feet of shelving to serve as archival storage.

As construction progressed, it became apparent that the Archives would likely need more space for future document storage. Just as Pope's original design was coming to completion, it was decided that the Archives' interior courtyard would be removed and converted to additional storage space. This change doubled available storage space from 374,000 square feet to more than 757,000 square feet.

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Quick Facts at a Glance:

  • The National Archives stands at 166 feet tall, 213 feet wide and 330 feet long.
  • The Archives’ two giant bronze doors each weigh 6.5 tons and stand at 38.7 feet high, 10 feet wide and 11 inches thick.
  • Each of the building’s 72 Corinthian columns are 53 feet high and weigh 95 tons.
  • The Archives’ statues are symbolic, representing the history of events (the past), the learning of history for future action (the future), cultural memory (heritage) and the preservation of historical knowledge (guardianship).

Security in the National Archives Today

Since 1952, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights have been stored and protected in a special 50-ton steel and concrete vault. Each morning, the helium-filled cases that hold the documents are raised from the vault by scissor jack. Each night, they are lowered back down into the vault.

Enshrinement of the Declaration of IndependenceThe transfer of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to the National Archives Building - from the National Archives Catalog

Cases are kept at a steady 70 degrees and constant humidity of 25 to 30 percent. The cases also protect the documents from ultraviolet light, which can cause damage to fragile parchment used for the documents.

Lastly, the cases are fireproof and waterproof. When it opened in 1952, the vault was even considered atomic bomb-proof. When documents are on exhibition, they are protected by two armed guards, who are able to activate the vault mechanism at any time.

Happy Fourth of July from AkitaBox!

Today, the National Archives Building serves as a symbol for the United States and represents its power, purpose and resilience. It preserves countless documents that tell the American story — from paper records, to miles of tape and film, to a growing number of electronic records. These documents serve as proof of our history, created by the people who lived through it.

Historical information for this blog is provided by the National Archives website.

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