Breaking Ground: From Market Stalls to the National Archives Building

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office.

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Aerial view of the Federal Triangle area of Washington, DC, 6/15/1936 (National Archives Identifier 7820637)

Today the National Archives Building is a recognizable edifice on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it has not always stood on that site in the nation’s capital.

Eighty-five years ago, ground was broken to begin construction on the structure that would house our nation’s records.

A week before the official ground-breaking, the contract for excavation was awarded to Jarboe and Houghton, a firm from Mechanicsville, Maryland. They were given 60 days to complete excavation, beginning on September 5 when a groundbreaking ceremony would take place.

Less than a year before, the land had been occupied by the popular Center Market. The large indoor complex, home to around 700 vendors, was built in 1871 but torn down in January 1931 to make way for the Archives Building.

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Photograph of Center Market taken from the corner of C and 9th Streets, NW, 4/2/1914. (National Archives Identifier 7851103)

The ground-breaking on Saturday, September 5, 1931, took place on the block embraced by  Pennsylvania Avenue to the north and B Street (which would later become Constitution Avenue) to the south, with 9th and 7th street on either side.

At the ceremony, which was open to members of all government departments as well as the general public, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Ferry K. Heath turned a spadeful of earth to mark the occasion.

In addition, Heath also gave a speech reminding those gathered of how momentous an occasion it was to see ground broken for the United States’ new federal archives.

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National Archives Building under construction, 11/14/1932. (National Archives Identifier 7368454)

The ceremony also initiated the second phase of a larger federal building program which saw the construction of much new government infrastructure in the capital at a cost of $100 million. After ground was broken for the National Archives, other federal buildings included in the program were soon to follow.

The Department of Agriculture Building was set to begin construction soon after the Archives, and sites were cleared for other buildings, including those planned for the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Department of Labor.

The entire construction program was, as a New York Times reporter dubbed it, Washington’s own local “five-year plan.”

By September of the following year, construction had begun on the foundation for the National Archives, and by early 1933 the cornerstone of the building was laid by President Hoover.

Today the National Archives has locations in 17 states, but it all started with the groundbreaking 85 years ago.

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