Symbols of Significance: The Pediments of the National Archives Building

October is American Archives Month! To celebrate the month dedicated to all things archives, we will feature weekly posts on the history of the National Archives. Today’s post comes from Christina James, intern in the National Archives History Office.

Measuring 118 feet wide and 18 feet high at their peaks, the pediments on the north and south sides of the National Archives Building are the largest in Washington, DC. These grand pediments depict scenes that convey the purpose of the National Archives and contain rich symbols of the Archives’ significance to the nation.

When he set out to design a national hall of records, architect John Russell Pope sought to create a neoclassical building of monumental size and design. This meant that the structure would be embellished with ornate, symbolic sculptural details, inspired by the art and architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Pope wrote, “In view of the classic spirit in which the design of the building was conceived, it was considered essential by the architect and the sculptors that allegory rather than realism be the means of conveying the significance of the sculptural decoration.”

The pediment on the north side of the building, facing Pennsylvania Avenue, was designed by accomplished sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman and is titled Destiny. The figure at the center symbolizes Destiny. He is seated, staring intensely from a throne on which rest two eagles, symbols of the United States and of courage.

Photograph of the Pennsylvania Avenue Entrance of the National Archives, 01/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier: 7657327)
Photograph of the Pennsylvania Avenue Entrance of the National Archives, 01/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier: 7657327)


Above Destiny are two genii, which Weinman described as “bearers of the fire of Patriotism.” To the immediate left of the central figure is a man on horseback. A woman carrying olive and palm branches, symbols of peace and victory, accompany him. Continuing to the left, four smaller figures are shown. Included in this group are a woman carrying a torch signifying enlightenment and a man with a harp, singing the “Song of Achievement.” Weinman intended that these figures would symbolize the “Arts of Peace.”

In contrast to the “Arts of Peace,” the figures on the right side of the pediment symbolize the “Arts of War.” A mounted soldier is depicted along with a warrior carrying the swords of his defeated foes. The smaller figures to the right represent the “Romance of History” and include two philosophers and a child holding the scroll of history. At each corner of the pediment is a griffin, which Weinman referred to as “Guardians of the Secrets of the Archives.”

The north pediment of the National Archives Building is matched in grandeur and symbolism by the pediment on the south side of the building. This pediment, designed by James Earle Fraser, and his wife, Laura Fraser, both respected sculptors, depicts the “Recorder of the Archives” and the archival process.

Photograph of the National Archives Building Constitution Avenue Entrance Portico and Pediment, 12/22/1935.  (National Archives Identifier: 7820508)
Photograph of the National Archives Building Constitution Avenue Entrance Portico and Pediment, 12/22/1935. (National Archives Identifier: 7820508)

The central seated figure represents the Recorder. He holds an open book in his lap and the keys to the archives in his hand. The Recorder’s throne rests on two rams, which symbolize parchment. Many of the oldest and most important documents kept by the National Archives were written on parchment, which is made of animal skin. Figures receiving important documents from female figures flank the Recorder. In the background are shown winged horses, representations of the mythic Pegasus. The smaller men shown are collecting documents, all to be recorded by the central figure. A group of dogs sit at each corner of the pediment, symbolizing guardianship. It has been said that Laura Fraser modeled some of these dogs after her own pets.

In total, $360,000 was spent on sculptural decorations for the National Archives Building. This included an estimated $69,000 dollars each for the pediments—$30,000 each for actual carving and $39,000 each in modeling costs. Together with the building’s other sculptures, these pediments make the National Archives Building the most ornate building in the Federal Triangle. The pediments’ powerful symbols and monumental scale speak to the significance of the National Archives’ purpose and evoke President Herbert Hoover’s statement that the National Archives Building would serve as “a temple of our history.”

11 thoughts on “Symbols of Significance: The Pediments of the National Archives Building

  1. What quotations are carved into the pediments of the building!? I find only one of the three anywhere on your website?? Thank you if you can reply to me with this information.

    1. The inscriptions found on the south, east, and west sides of the building are paraphrases from the speeches given by President Hoover and Secretary Mills at the February 20, 1933, cornerstone laying ceremony.

      On the south side: “The ties that bind the lives of our people in one indissoluble union are perpetuated in the archives of our government and to their custody this building is dedicated.”


      On the west side: “The glory and romance of our history are here preserved in the chronicles of those who conceived and builded the structure of our nation.”


      On the east side: “This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.”


  2. Jessie,
    Fascinating – thankyou very much for all your scholarship and research.
    You mention the two griffins at the corners of the pediment, but I can’t find any explanation of the central symbol at the apex of the pediment. It looks a little bit like a stylized scallop shell.
    I’ve seen the same three symbols above the LaSalle entrance to the Federal Reserve building in Chicago.
    Any suggestions?

      1. Wow – that was so quick! And I just learnt something new.
        I looked up Anthemion Acroteria – pages and pages about it!
        Amazing – one gets to 80 and somebody thousands of miles away, whom you’ve never met, opens a whole fascinating new world of discovery.
        Thank you.

  3. Does anyone know where the quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is carved into a pediment of a government building in Washington? There’s an image in my mind which I remember from my childhood decades ago.

  4. Hi – I have an architecture question. I am trying to identify the building in a picture (can’t figure out how to send it). It is a stone building pediment from 1936 by Sherry Fry and shows a seated woman, two sheep or goats, and a barrel of apples (?). The picture is available on the Sherry Fry Wikipedia page but there is not identification of the building.

    Thank you, Sherry Friend

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