Inside the National Archives Building 

U.S. National Archives

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freedom, protection, and democracy to convey the importance of the National Archives' mission to preserve America's historical documents.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 Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom
Architect John Russell Pope designed this towering room to enshrine the nation's founding documents.

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 Rotunda was originally constructed to hold the Charters of Freedom, although at the time the National Archives did not possess these documents.

In 1938, the Department of State transferred the Bill of Rights to the National Archives.

The National Archives did not get the Constitution and Declaration of Independence until 1952, when Congress ordered the Library of Congress to transfer the documents to the National Archives.

The Shrine to the Charters of Freedom
Pope thought the building should also hold a national shrine through which visitors could view documents that mark the creation of the nation.

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.

The Faulkner Murals
American artist Barry Faulkner created two murals to reflect the spirit of the Charters of Freedom.

To fill the spaces over the Charters of Freedom, Pope commissioned Faulkner to paint two large murals that would convey the spirit of American democracy.

Faulkner painted the murals in a large room above Grand Central Station in New York City. The canvases were then carefully transported to the National Archives and installed on October 15, 1936.

At 14 x 37.5 feet, these larger-than-life murals catch the attention of visitors to the Rotunda.

The Declaration mural shows Thomas Jefferson handing the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock.

The stormy sky and the placement of revolutionary battle flags in the right-hand corner represent the creation of the United States in a time of war.

The Constitution mural depicts James Madison presenting the Constitution to George Washington.

This mural has a clear sky and shows the flags of the original 13 states to represent the establishment of the new government in a time of peace and national unity.

In the early 1970s, the Faulkner murals underwent cleaning and restoration to remove 50 years of accumulated grime and reverse the canvases' deterioration.

The Shrine for the Charters of Freedom was originally built with steps leading to the Charters, and the cases were too high for young children and handicapped persons to view.

The Rotunda underwent a major renovation from 2001-2003 to make the space for accessible.

During the renovation, the Faulkner murals were removed from the Rotunda walls and sent to a conservation lab for cleaning and restoration. Where wall plaster had pushed against the canvas and deformed the murals, restoration experts carefully retouched the painting.

The Rotunda reopened in 2003 with an official rededication ceremony on Constitution Day, September 17, 2003, when the public could once again view murals and Charters of Freedom.

The Architecture of the Rotunda 
Purposeful design and symbolism characterize this towering domed room.

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.

The bronze gates that welcome visitors into the Rotunda are filled with symbolism like the rest of the building's designs.

The face in medallion on the gates is either Mercury or Medusa—Pope did not indicate which one. Mercury represents communication and wisdom; while Medusa represents protection.

The gates are topped with spears to guard the Charters and decorated with eagles and mythological figures to protect and defend the Charters and the ideals they represent.

This bronze medallion in the floor of the Rotunda entryway is composed of four sections representing the purpose the American government.

These four parts are Justice, War and Defense, History, and Legislation. Each is represented by a figure holding items pertaining to its purpose.

Justice holds a sword and a scale.

The figure of War and Defense holds a shield and sword.

The figure of History holds a quill pen, book, and globe.

Legislation holds a Senate tablet and fasces, which represent government authority and the unity and strength in working together.

Along with the eagles on the top of the bronze gates entering the Rotunda, two large stone eagles stand guard high above the Charters of Freedom.

Eagles are a national symbol of the United States and represent freedom, courage, and strength. There are at least nine eagles in the Rotunda alone, and more around the building and on the building's exterior.

The portico doors lead outside to the gigantic sliding doors at the Constitution Avenue steps. The exterior doors are 37 feet 7 inches high, and 10 feet 11 inches wide.

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 Inner Courtyard: Room for Expansion
Architect John Russell Pope's plans for a large inner courtyard were amended when the National Archives recognized the need for more stack 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.

Portraits of the Archivists of the United States
On the research and administration side of the National Archives Building, past Archivists are honored with portraits on display.

This portrait of the First Archivist of the United States, R.D.W. Connor, was unveiled on October 10, 1952. Connor was vital to creating the agency and shaping its mission.

Along with portraits of the first nine Archivists of the United States, a portrait of Waldo Gifford Leland also hangs in the stairwell above the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Leland was instrumental to the creation of the National Archives.

More Than Just an Archives
The National Archives isn't just a repository for documents. 

Although the National Archives was established simply to hold and protect the records of the United States government, it is much more than just a collection of paper.

The National Archives is a place for visitors to gather and reflect on what it means to be American.

With its monumental architecture and symbolic design, the National Archives is truly, in the words of President Herbert Hoover, "an expression of the American soul."

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by Lily Tyndall with special thanks to Kaitlin Errickson, Billy Wade, Jeff Reed, Brogan Jackson, Mary Ryan, and Jessie Kratz.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.