Architect John Russell Pope's design for the National Archives Building incorporates symbols of American unity, freedom, protection, and democracy to convey the importance of the National Archives' mission to preserve America's historical documents. Learn more about the history of the building's interior and the symbolism found in its paintings, sculptures, and decorations.
The National Archives Rotunda—an important feature of this neoclassical building designed by architect John Russell Pope—houses the most popular documents in the National Archives' holdings: the Charters of Freedom.
The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights rest in this shrine to democracy and the American spirit, held in protective cases and guarded by watching eagles.
The grand Rotunda is meant to convey the importance of the Charters of Freedom as well as the significance of the National Archives as a "complete record of the History of the National Government."
The display area for the Charters of Freedom is known as the Shrine. It was specifically made to house the founding documents.
Pope wanted the National Archives to be a place where people could come and contemplate the meaning of being American, and designed the shrine to reflect the greatness of the nation's charter documents.
The Charters of Freedom are kept in carefully monitored cases filled with protective gas. They are displayed in very low light levels to prevent light damage. The lighting in the Rotunda is dimmed to equal the light given off by two candles at a distance of one foot, known as foot candles.
Guards watch the Charters to ensure no visitor gets too close to the documents or harms them in any way.
There are four empty niches in the wall of the Rotunda. Although part of Pope’s original plan, they have never been filled.
Pope did not indicate what should be displayed in the niches other than stating that they would "be in keeping with its [the Rotunda's] purpose and character."
Whatever Pope had planned, the Great Depression hit the United States during the building's construction, and any planned statues may have been cut for budgetary reasons.
At first glance, the room gives the illusion of a complete dome. Pope did this to convey the grandeur and importance of the Charters of Freedom enshrined below.
The Rotunda is 75 feet high and semicircular, so it is actually a half-dome.
Pope created a half-dome rather than a full dome because it was less expensive and created more space for records storage.
These doors were the entrance to the National Archives until the renovation in 2003.
Symbolic detail on these interior doors includes a sitting female figure holding a bundle of sticks around an ax. This ancient Roman motif, called fasces, represents government authority and the strength found in working together.
This reproduction of Bronco Buster, a sculpture by Frederick Remington, is on display in a previously empty niche space on the Mezzanine level of the National Archives Building.
Remington, an American artist, sculpted the original piece out of bronze and copyrighted it in 1895. It was his most popular sculpture.
Unlike the four empty niches in the Rotunda, the National Archives elected to place this reproduction in the niche to fill the space.
The National Archives interior courtyard was to be an open space in the middle of the building. This was common in the design of many Federal buildings at the time.
However, soon after Pope's designs were completed and the building was being finished, staff realized they needed much more space for records.
The inner courtyard was filled in with additional stack space. When work was completed in 1937, records storage doubled to 757,000 square feet.
This exhibit was created by Lily Tyndall with special thanks to Kaitlin Errickson, Billy Wade, Jeff Reed, Brogan Jackson, Mary Ryan, and Jessie Kratz.