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.
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.
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.”