An American Symbol Forged from the Progressive Era: The National Archives Building

The National Archives Building in Washington, DC, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently being considered for National Historic Landmark Status. A virtual program on the nomination will be held at noon (ET) on Thursday, April 29, 2021. Register here.

The historical community had long lobbied for a National Archives without much success. Real progress came in 1926, when Congress passed the Public Buildings Act providing for the construction of several government office buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Washington, DC—what’s known as the Federal Triangle. One of these buildings was to be a National Archives. 

Congress appointed the Department of the Treasury to carry out the design and construction of the buildings. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon assembled a group of the leading architects to design the Federal buildings. Mellon wanted the buildings to share certain design elements—limestone facades, red tiled roofs, and classical colonnades. He also wanted the buildings to be neoclassical in design following the architecture style of many federal government buildings that existed at that time.

The Commission on Fine Arts and the Public Building Commission had final approval on all plans. Immediately after Congress passed the legislation, the Public Buildings Commission announced its top priority was the construction of an Archives building, but because of delays in site selection, land acquisition, and design, the project was stalled a number of years.

The Archives building proved more difficult to design than the other federal buildings in the project because it was more than an office space for workers—it would store the most valuable records of the government. Architects on the project created a number of unsuccessful design plans until John Russell Pope was selected as the architect. Pope had also designed the Scottish Rite Temple and Constitution Hall, and later he designed the West Building of the National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial. 

Originally the National Archives Building was to be between 12th and 13th Streets and B Street (now Constitution Avenue) Northwest. By 1927, the Archives site had moved to 9th and 10th Streets and B Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Pope suggested moving the building site again—this time to the land the Justice Department was slated to occupy—the block bounded by 7th and 9th Streets and B Street and Pennsylvania Avenue—the current site of the National Archives Building.

At that time Center Market occupied that location. In 1797, President Washington had set aside land in the heart of Washington for a new public market, and since 1800 a market had been on that site. Since the 1870s, the Center Market was a red brick Victorian building designed by renowned architect Adolf Cluss. It was demolished in 1931, and construction of the new Archives building began. 

In 1933, President Herbert Hoover laid the building’s cornerstone, dedicating it to the people of the United States, proclaiming, “This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul. It will be one of the most durable, an expression of the American character.” Hoover placed several items in the cornerstone, including a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a copy of the Constitution, an American flag, and copies of the Washington daily newspapers

While designing the building, Pope kept in mind the practical aspects of storing records and chose materials that conveyed permanence and were fireproof. The frame is steel. Originally, Pope wanted granite for the entire exterior of the building. But the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, so to save money he selected limestone from Indiana for the building, with a base of granite from Massachusetts. All the materials used in the construction of the building came from the United States. 

Pope also realized the symbolic aspect of the National Archives. He incorporated neoclassical architectural themes on the building in order to symbolize the tradition of democracy derived from ancient Greece and Rome—the exterior pediments, columns, and statues are all designs borrowed from our ancient ancestors. In total, $360,000 was spent on the sculptural decorations on the National Archives Building, more than on decorations on any other structure in the Federal Triangle. 

The exterior was complete in 1935, and the result was a Temple to History full of symbolism and meaning. 

Want to learn more about the National Archives Building? Join the Park Service and the National Archives History Office on Thursday, April 29, at noon (ET) to learn how the National Archives became an architectural symbol of the core values of American democracy, how it was forged over many decades from the values and methods of Progressive Era government reformers, and how architect John Russell Pope and his contemporaries created an exceptional example of American classical art and architecture ideally suited to reflect the mission and meaning of the institution.

Led by historian Steven Bedford, the presentation will focus on the National Archives Building’s national significance and the recently completed National Historic Landmark (NHL) study. Dr. Bedford is author of John Russell Pope, Architect of Empire and director of historic preservation for WSP USA. National Park Service historian and NHL Program Coordinator Kathryn Smith will introduce the project and the NHL program. The illustrated presentation will be followed by a question and answer session.

The presentation is limited to 250 participants so register now.

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