Continuing our celebration of American Archives month, today’s post comes from Christina James, intern in the National Archives History Office.
Since it opened and began accepting records in 1935, the National Archives has had to face the issue of space. Housing the records of the Federal Government is no small task, even when only 1-3 percent of the government’s records are held in perpetuity.
In the decades since its establishment, the National Archives has addressed its storage needs in a number of ways, some more effective than others.
The National Archives first confronted the growing mountain of records it faced by increasing storage space at the National Archives Building. The building’s architect, John Russell Pope had designed the building to have an interior courtyard, which could be converted to storage place at some point.
This courtyard was almost immediately filled in to expand the building’s stack area and nearly double the building’s storage space. This addition to the building was completed in 1937, but again in the late 1960s, the National Archives Building reached its storage capacity.
During its time under the General Services Administration and prior to its more recent expansions, the National Archives was pressed for space and resorted to storing records in an old department store building in downtown Washington.
Beginning in 1976, the National Archives rented the old Lansburgh’s Department Store building, just a block from the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.
The Archives paid an annual rent of $171,600 for 65,000 square feet on three of the building’s floors. Among the thousands of records kept in the old department store were documents dating back to the first Congress.
The building was in astonishingly poor condition. The Washington Post reported in August 1979 that “holes between the floors . . . made it impossible to regulate temperature and humidity around the clock, controls that are vital to preserving old and crumbing documents.”
Despite requests for funds to repair the building, the General Services Administration did not comply. In 1979 the Lansburgh building was deemed a fire hazard by the Public Building Service, and the General Services Administration ordered the National Archives to immediately vacate the facility.
The records in the old Lansburgh Department Store were split up and relocated to the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, and the main National Archives Building for temporary storage.
In the 1970s, as the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation was working to improve and revitalize the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic Site, a new idea to increase archival storage space was proposed—expand underground.
The 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan suggested that by building an underground repository in the space below these buildings, the National Archives could gain an additional million square feet of storage.
While the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan resulted in widened sidewalks, lighting and landscaping improvements, and new business and residential space for the area, the underground repository was never built.
In 1994, a new National Archives building in College Park, Maryland (Archives II) was completed to provide further space for the National Archives’ ever-growing holdings.
The National Archives and Records Administration’s first underground facility opened in August 1997. This facility at Lee’s Summit, in the Kansas City area, is housed in an underground limestone cave.
Since then, the National Archives has opened three other underground repositories. These facilities have provided millions of cubic feet of storage. Additionally, the cool temperatures of an underground cave are perfect for storing records and reduce air conditioning expenses.