The National Archives and Records Administration is the nation’s record keeper. Many people know the National Archives as the custodian of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – the three main formative documents of the U.S. and its government. It is also the keeper of a copy of the Magna Carta, confirmed by Edward I in 1297. Other important historical documents maintained at the National Archives include the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the Emancipation Proclamation, and collections of photography, art works, and other historically and culturally significant artifacts. But they also maintain the public records about and for ordinary American citizens, such as textual and microfilm records relating to genealogy, census data, American Indians, the District of Columbia, maritime matters, charts, architectural and engineering drawings, and the records of the U.S. Congress and all Federal government agencies.
Opened as its original headquarters in 1935, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Building is located approximately halfway between the White House and the U.S. Capitol Building, between 7th and 9th Streets at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in downtown D.C. Known informally as Archives I, the building has entrances on Pennsylvania Avenue and on Constitution Avenue just north of the National Mall.
Designed by architect John Russell Pope, the National Archives and Records Administration building was intended to be on par with the other national monuments and symbols on the National Mall. The massive building covers two full city blocks, and is among the most impressive and architecturally striking buildings on the National Mall. During the cornerstone ceremony conducted in 1933, President Herbert Hoover stated, “This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul.”
The National Archives building is highly decorated with pediments, sculptures, medallions, and classical carvings. Imbedded in its size and beauty, the building has specific messages and symbolism in the inscriptions that encircle the building, and the sculptures that surround it.
The inscriptions declare the building’s goals. On the west side of the building is inscribed, “The glory and romance of our history are here preserved in the chronicles of those who conceived and builded the structure of our nation.” The inscription on the east side of the building states, “This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.” And the south side inscription reads, “The ties that bind the lives of our people in one indissoluble union are perpetuated in the archives of our government and to their custody this building is dedicated.”
The four massive statues around the National Archives building were each was cut from a single block of limestone weighing 125 tons. Sculptor Robert I. Aitken’s statue “The Future” sits on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the building to the left of the main entrance. The young woman appears to lift her eyes from the pages of an open book and gaze into the future. Its base is inscribed with a line inspired by Shakespeare’s play The Tempest: “What is Past is Prologue.” To the right of the main entrance is another sculpture by Aitken, entitled “The Past,” which depicts an aged figure with a scroll and closed book imparting the knowledge of past generations.” The words on the base enjoin, “Study the Past.”
To the rear of the building on Constitution Avenue sit “Heritage” and “Guardianship,” both sculpted by James Earle Fraser. Heritage is located to the right of the entrance, and depicts a woman who holds a child and a sheaf of wheat in her right hand as symbols of growth and hopefulness. In her left hand she protects an urn, symbolic of the ashes of past generations. The base is inscribed, “The Heritage of the Past is the Seed that Brings Forth the Harvest of the future.” And finally, “Guardianship,” to the left of the rear entrance, uses martial symbols, such as the helmet, sword, and lion skin to convey the need to protect the historical record for future generations. This sculpture is inscribed “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.”
A visit to the National Archives can be very productive in terms of research and information. But the building itself can make a visit worthwhile, even if you don’t go inside.