We are celebrating American Archives Month with a series on National Archives history. Today’s post comes from Elise Fariello, an archives specialist at the National Archives at Chicago.
The National Archives and Records Center building in Chicago is 50 years old in 2023! The building, located at 7358 South Pulaski Road, was built in 1973 and dedicated on July 18, 1974. At that time, the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) was part of the General Services Administration (GSA), which happened to be celebrating its 25th Anniversary in 1974.
The National Archives has had a Federal Records Center (FRC) in Chicago, storing records from the midwestern Great Lakes states, since the early 1950s. The FRCs were established at that time to reduce storage costs and help government agencies access and dispose of their inactive records.
By the early 1970s, the Chicago FRC had already moved among a number of locations. In 1950 it was set to be in a building within the Dodge-Chrysler plant on the southwest side of the city (now Ford City Mall), but the plan changed when the plant was needed for the Korean War effort. In 1951 GSA negotiated a lease for the FRC downtown at since-demolished 333 West Lake Street. Lack of space soon became a problem, and the FRC began using an additional property in Aurora, Illinois, for the overflow.
By 1954 the FRC had moved once again to a facility at 7201 South Leamington Street with a storage capacity of approximately 317,500 cubic feet. Space quickly became an obstacle again, with the January 1960 report from the Chicago Regional Director to the Archivist of the United States noting that over 6,000 cubic feet had been relocated to a Ford Aircraft Plant, and “another 4,000 will have to be relocated before we can realize sufficient elbow room at 7201 Leamington.”
By 1962 improved shelving had increased the storage capacity to 437,835 cubic feet, but it was not enough to solve the persistent quandary. Ultimately, GSA constructed a new building for the FRC on South Pulaski Road, just a few blocks from the old Dodge-Chrysler building where the Chicago FRC began some 20 years earlier.
With 700,000 cubic feet storage capacity, the new facility served to consolidate holdings of the FRC being stored across multiple buildings throughout the Chicagoland region. In his speech during the dedication, Archivist of the United States James Rhoads estimated that keeping records at the then-new NARS facility in Chicago would save the government about $3,857,000 in storage fees, compared with leaving these records in offices.
The building also contained one of 11 NARS regional archives, which were formed in the late 1960s to alleviate some of the space issues at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, as well as to keep regionally valuable permanent records available to local researchers. They were set up in the already well-established Federal Records Centers located throughout the country.
The Chicago FRC had already been responding to many reference requests—357,850 in fiscal year 1966, according to that year’s report. The vast majority of these requests were from federal agencies, but historians and other researchers became interested in these records throughout the 1960s, too. The new regional archives gave the public the ability to browse microfilmed collections and request access to accessioned permanent records.
The Chicago regional archives has had a steady base of researchers throughout the years. A 1976 Chicago Tribune article noted that researchers could call ahead to make an appointment at one of six microfilm readers to view the 1900 Census. Propelled by the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s book Roots, genealogy exploded in popularity over the next few decades, and the regional archives facilities saw a big increase in researchers.
A 1989 spotlight article on the Chicago facility displayed how much it had expanded, with Archives Director Peter Bunce explaining, “We give 20 genealogy workshops a year.” In addition to providing resources like tours, document displays, and workshops for researchers, the facility and its staff became part of civic life in Chicago, even hosting and attending many events such as a new citizenship ceremony in 1987.
Today, the Chicago Federal Records Center holds over 650,000 cubic feet of inactive federal records. The National Archives at Chicago holds over 130,000 cubic feet of permanently accessioned records from this region, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, most of which are open to the public. U.S. District Court records make up the majority of its holdings and reference requests.
Other popular records include those from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Real Property Disposal Case Files (documenting the sale of surplus federal property), and so much more. Researchers can learn about the regional holdings by visiting NARA’s website and by searching the National Archives Catalog.
So much has changed since the building opened 50 years ago. NARS became NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) in 1985, when it became an independent agency, no longer under GSA. The National Archives at Chicago continues to help researchers access genealogical information, though much of what was once viewed on microfilm is now available online. The shift to electronic record-keeping and a focus on increasing digital access means more changes and challenges are in store for NARA in Chicago and across the country. These technological developments allow exciting opportunities for regional records to reach new audiences and make more researchers aware of the resources at 7358 South Pulaski Road.
Here’s to discovering what the next 50 years will bring!