Making Room for Records

Continuing our celebration of American Archives month, today’s post comes from Christina James, intern in the National Archives History Office.

Photograph of the Inner Court of Archives Building, 12/21/1935. (National Archives Identifier: 7820485) This inner courtyard was filled in shortly after the construction of the National Archives Building to increase the building’s storage capacity.

Photograph of the Inner Court of Archives Building, 12/21/1935. (National Archives Identifier: 7820485)
This inner courtyard was filled in shortly after the construction of the National Archives Building to increase the building’s storage capacity.

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.

Photograph of Veterans Bureau Records in Stack Areas 06/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier: 7820633) The records of the Veterans Bureau were among the first groups of records to be transferred to the National Archives. At the time this photo was taken, the National Archives had accessioned 58,800 cubic feet of records, mostly from the Veterans Bureau and the U.S. Food Administration.

Photograph of Veterans Bureau Records in Stack Areas, 06/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier: 7820633) The records of the Veterans Bureau were among the first groups of records to be transferred to the National Archives. At the time this photo was taken, the National Archives had accessioned 58,800 cubic feet of records, mostly from the Veterans Bureau and the U.S. Food Administration.

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.”

Photograph of Washington National Records Center Stack Area with Employee Servicing Records, ca. 1968. (National Archives Identifier: 4477179) The Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland is one of the largest Federal Record Centers in the National Archives and Records Administration.

Photograph of Washington National Records Center Stack Area with Employee Servicing Records, ca. 1968. (National Archives Identifier: 4477179)
The Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland is one of the largest Federal Record Centers in the National Archives and Records Administration.

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.

Caves in Lee's Summit before shelving was installed.

Caves in Lee’s Summit before shelving was installed.

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.

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3 Responses to Making Room for Records

  1. Maarja Krusten says:

    Thank you for an interesting, enjoyable article about some of the buildings in which I’ve worked as a National Archives employee including the John Russell Pope Building and the Washington National Records Center. I even made some visits to the Lansburgh’s building to assist National Archives colleagues with work there back in the day.

    I remember well the proposal in the 1970s for building an underground National Archives facility as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment initiative. The plan was for it to be across Pennsylvania Avenue from Archives 1 on the old Kann’s Department Store site where the Navy Memorial now stands.

    “For the last four years, though, the store has been empty except for occasional visits by vagrants and vandals. The avenue corporation acquired it for $4.3 million early last year. Barnes said he hoped the new the temporary park will become a place ‘where people want to stop and linger.’ He said that it might be used for weekend markets and craft bazaars and that part of it may have tennis courts. It definitely will not be a parking lot, he said.

    During the next three years, the corporation hopes construction will start beneath the park on new storage space for the National Archives. After that work is expected to begin on the new housing development.” (Washington Post, January 28, 1979)

    As efforts to find space dragged on (for various reasons), the National Archives turned to leased space in addition to the locations you mentioned in your article. One was a complex on S. Pickett Street in Alexandria, Virginia. The Library of Congress leased space in the same building for its Map and Geography unit prior to the opening of the Madison Building in 1980.

    The National Archives moved its Nixon Presidential Materials Project, Cartographics, and Motion Picture units into space on S. Pickett Street in 1982. The Nixon Project moved to Archives 2 in November 1993 and the other units relocated to College Park, as well. Bruce Bustard once worked at the Pickett Street, as did Vernon Early, who retired last year. You will find some photos here at a celebration of the National Archives’ 80th anniversary earlier this year: http://nixonara.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/the-true-gift-of-what-we-do/

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  2. Nick Baric says:

    Thanks for the article – this is an example of learning something new every day. As a current NARA staffer, I never realized we had records stored in the District outside of the main building. I do recall non-custodial units being nearby. In fact, on my first day on board in February 1993, I took my oath at the personnel office at 601 D Street NW (I believe it was called the “Patrick Henry Building”). I also recall administrative offices on 17th & K Streets NW among other locations.
    The article mentions that some of the records were relocated from the Lansburgh site to the National Archives Building. I wonder if the movable shelving that housed printed documents in former 3E2A/3W2A under the Constitution Avenue steps was installed as a result of the Lansburgh move. I recall doing reference pulls there while doing a cross training assignment with the Center for Legislative Archives in 1994.

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  3. Patrick says:

    Lest the term give a false impression, the underground facilities in suburban KC aren’t in caves per se. They’re the result of limestone mining. After the rock was removed, the resulting space was converted to a variety of business purposes. Subtropolis, where the latest NARA facility is located (formerly named Hunt Midwest, as in Lamar Hunt, late owner of the Chiefs), at least used to have an international trade zone. You’d have to go through Customs when entering and leaving – not something you’d expect to do underground!

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