The National Archives Building: Temple to our History

U.S. National Archives

The National Archives is known for the history it holds, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But the history of the National Archives Building itself is just as representative of democracy as the Charters of Freedom it holds. This exhibit explores how democracy and history have influenced the architecture of the National Archives Building. 

Occupying a unique position in Washington—halfway between the White House and the Capitol—the National Archives Building is an architectural treasure in terms of both form and function.  
In 1928, Congress appropriated $8,750,000 for the land and construction of the National Archives Building—the equivalent of almost $122,000,000 in today's dollars. Construction began in 1933, and the building was first open in 1935. 

President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone of the building 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."

A view of the National Mall from atop the Archives' construction. The Washington Monument and Old Post Office Tower can be seen in the background.

Architect John Russell Pope designed the building to be surrounded by a dry moat. In the early 2000s, some areas of this moat were converted to office spaces.

Quick Facts
Get your rulers out—we're going to measure this colossal temple of Clio, Greek muse of history. How big is the National Archives Building? Look at those Corinthian columns. How many are there? Let's find out!

Let's talk numbers:
The National Archives stands at 166 feet tall, 213 feet wide, and 330 feet long.

Doors to Democracy: Atop the National Archives' grand staircase rests two giant bronze doors leading to the Rotunda. Each door weighs 6.5 tons, is 38.7 feet high, 10 feet wide, and is 11 inches thick.

Although they no longer function as the main entrance to the National Archives and are rarely opened, the bronze doors continue to be an impressive feature of the building.

Architecture, Ancient and Modern
“In view of the classic spirit in which the design of the building was conceived, it was considered essential by the architect and the sculptors that allegory rather than realism be the means of conveying the significance of the sculptural decoration.” —John Russell Pope, Architect of the National Archives Building.Pope wanted to incorporate neoclassical architectural themes on the building in order to symbolize the tradition of democracy from ancient Greece and Rome to the United States of America. The exterior pediments, columns, statues, and even the Rotunda's oculus are all designs borrowed from our ancient ancestors.

The columns of the National Archives Building are perhaps the structure’s most prominent features. Each column stands 53 feet high, 5 feet 8 inches in diameter, and weighs 95 tons. In total, 72 Corinthian columns adorn the building.

The columns were made in sections, called "drums" which were assembled on top of each other to reach the full height. The ornate top of a Corinthian column is called the "capital." The capitals were carved in place.

If you look closely at the carvings near the top of the building, you'll see small lion heads among the stylized foliage. These lions are symbols of vigilance and strength.

The capitals' decorative elements resemble acanthus leaves and are common among this architectural style.

Sentinels of Scholarship
On each side of the National Archives Building stand two very large, very serious-looking statues. They are the four watchers and defenders of knowledge: Past, Future, Heritage, and Guardianship. These personifications represent the history of events, the learning of history for future action, cultural memory, and the preservation of historical knowledge. Each sculpture carries with it allegories specific to its role as keeper.

"Heritage," created by sculptor James Earl Fraser, is a female figure holding a baby and a sheaf of wheat, which symbolizes growth. The urn contains the ashes of past generations. Heritage sits next to the Constitution Avenue entrance.

Inscribed below Heritage's feet is a quotation from abolitionist Wendell Phillips: “The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”

The other statue on Constitution Avenue is "Guardianship." The male figure holds symbols of defense: a helmet, shield, sword, and a bundle of sticks called a "fasces," symbolizing strength in unity.

The quotation on the statue's base has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

"Past," by sculptor Robert I. Aitken, sits near the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Its inscription, a paraphrase of Confucius, reads: “Study the Past.” The closed book represents history as the Past gazes down the corridors of time.

“What is Past is Prologue,” from Shakespeare's Tempest, is written on the base of "Future." Sitting across from Past and his closed book, Future has an open book symbolizing what has yet to be written.

The Pennsylvania Avenue pediment, by Adolph Alexander Weinman, shows "Destiny" in the center. Next to him are figures representing the Arts of Peace and War. These are flanked by figures representing the "Romance of History" and the "Song of Achievement."

The Constitution Avenue pediment "Recorder of the Archives," is by James and Laura Fraser. The Recorder sits in the center as his attendants receive documents. Winged horses, who represent aspiration, stand behind the records.

Atop the pediments stand eagles on-guard, watchers of the building. The national symbol of the United States, the eagle represents lofty courage.

Guardians of the Portal
The "Guardians of the Portal," by Robert I. Aitken, flank the doors of the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to the National Archives Building. The left relief depicts a Roman soldier holding a sword and shield. The torch behind him symbolizes the nation’s heritage. The Roman numerals read “1776,” the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, which is represented by a scroll in the figure’s left hand. The figure in the right relief wears a wolf skin and holds a sword and shield. The Roman numerals behind him read “1935,” the year the National Archives Building opened.  
There are 13 medallions circling the attic story of the National Archives Building. They represent the House, Senate, and the 10 different departments of the Federal Government that existed in 1936. The final medallion is the Great Seal of the United States. Designed by James Earl Fraser and Robert I. Aitken, they are each five feet in diameter.  

The medallion representing the Department of Justice (by Aitken) shows a man clutching the “Reins of Guidance” in his right hand. In his left hand are the books of the law.

The medallion of the Department of State (by Fraser) features a bearded man signifying wisdom, who holds parchment papers in his lap. Behind him stand rolled scrolls of records.

The Department of War (by Fraser) is represented by a soldier wearing a helmet and holding a sword. Dressed in archaic war gear, this soldier is ready for battle.

The man representing the Department of the Treasury (by Fraser) sits among sacks of money and next to a vault, representing wealth. He is the protector of America's economy and currency.

The medallion of the Department of the Navy (by Fraser) shows a figure holding a ship. He is the protector of the Navy and the high seas.

Temple of our History
The design of the National Archives Building reflects the traditions of democracy and freedom. As the most ornate building on the Federal Triangle, nearly every architectural element is symbolic of history and the records kept inside of it. For more information on the National Archives Building's history visit the History Office website:
Credits: Story

Researcher: Christina James, intern at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Curator: Alley M. Jordan, graduate research intern at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Project Manager: Jessie Kratz, Historian of the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Editor: Mary Ryan, Editor, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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.