Presidential Visits to the National Archives Building: 20th Century

This two-part exhibit explores Presidential trips down Pennsylvania Avenue to the National Archives Building.

The cornerstone-laying ceremony of the National Archives Building (1933-02-20) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Herbert Hoover: Our First Presidential Visitor?

Although there wasn't an actual building yet, the first President to visit the site of the National Archives Building was Herbert Hoover.

On the afternoon of February 20, 1933, the President and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover arrived at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC to lay the cornerstone of the building that would house the nation’s records.

President Herbert Hoover at the cornerstone-laying ceremony of the National Archives Building (1933-02-20) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Laying the Building's Cornerstone

President Hoover, architect John Russell Pope, and Secretary of the Treasury Ogden Mills each took turns spreading the mortar with a silver trowel. Inside the cornerstone, Hoover placed an American flag and copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Visitor Orientation Plaza at the National Archives Building (2013-12-19) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

In a speech to a small group of invited guests and officials, Hoover remarked, “The Temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul." These words live on in the National Archives Building today.

Records arriving at the National Archives Building (1935-01-07) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

FDR Tours a Nearly-Complete Archives Building

Throughout his Presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt took a keen interest in the nation’s archives, visiting the building in 1937 and again in 1943. At the time of his first visit on June 16, 1937, staff had begun moving records into the nearly completed building.

FDR’s interest in archives can be traced back to the early years of his Presidency. Although the building's construction was under way when he assumed office, there was not yet an agency to steward the records. After the National Archives was created as an agency in 1934, Roosevelt continued to take an avid interest in its operations.

Central Search Room of the National Archives Building (1938-04-05) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

The tour included the Central Search Room, where researchers could examine records. Noting the comfortable chairs and desks throughout the room, the President joked, “When my term is up, I’m coming here to work.”

Parade: Transfer of Documents to the National Archives by U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Truman Unveils the Founding Documents

On December 15, 1952, Harry Truman became the next President to visit the National Archives. His trip coincided with Bill of Rights Day and commemorated the unveiling of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights on permanent exhibit.

The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were previously held at the Library of Congress. Archivist of the United States Wayne C. Grover negotiated with Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans to transfer them to the National Archives. They arrived on December 13, 1952.

Enshrinement ceremony in the National Archives Rotunda (1952-12-15) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Two days later, President Truman attended the unveiling in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. After the curtain was pulled aside, the three founding documents were on permanent display together for the first time in history.

In his address, President Truman remarked: “We are engaged here today in a symbolic act. We are enshrining these documents for future ages. But unless we keep alive in our hearts the true meaning of these documents, what we are doing here could prove to be of little value."

President Kennedy viewing the FDR Naval exhibit in the National Archives Building (1962-06-27) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

President Kennedy Opens “The Old Navy, 1776-1860”

It was another decade before a President returned to the National Archives Building. On June 27, 1962, John F. Kennedy opened an exhibit that he conceived of on U.S. Navy prints and paintings at the National Archives Building titled The Old Navy, 1776–1860.

The pieces in the exhibit were selected from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library’s collection in Hyde Park, NY. In addition to prints and watercolors, FDR's collection includes pamphlets, books, models, broadsides, music, and photographs. It is unsurprising that JFK proposed the exhibit—both he and Roosevelt shared a lifelong connection with the sea. 

President John F. Kennedy speaking at the opening of the FDR Naval Prints exhibit (1962-06-27) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

FDR's Enduring Legacy

Kennedy hoped that visitors would learn more about America’s “life at sea” and FDR’s enduring legacy: “We will be the first of a great number of Americans who will touch, through this exhibit, not only the life of President Roosevelt but also the old Navy." 

Carl Albert, President Richard Nixon, Warren Burger, and David Mahoney in the Rotunda (1971-07-03) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Nixon Opens the Bicentennial Era

The next President to visit the National Archives was Richard Nixon, who came to honor the beginning of the Bicentennial era on July 3, 1971.  His opening address was aired live on television and radio from the Rotunda of the National Archives Building.

In his speech, Nixon called on the nation to take up the bold and enterprising character of previous generations of Americans: “The American Revolution was not something that happened two centuries ago; it is something that is happening today. Behind it is a spirit of adventure, a spirit of compassion."

President Gerald Ford at the opening of the Bicentennial at the National Archives Building (1976-07-02) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Ford Celebrates America’s 200th Birthday

With the Bicentennial celebration now in full swing, President Gerald Ford visited the National Archives on July 2, 1976. Following the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Ford hoped the Bicentennial era might symbolize a new chapter in the nation’s history.

Ford's remarks centered on the founding documents and touched on an enduring sense of patriotism and national purpose: “We return thanks that they have guided us safely through two centuries of national independence, but the excitement of this occasion is that they still work."

President Reagan attending the swearing-in of Don Wilson with Patsy Wilson and Richard Cheney (1987-12-04) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Don W. Wilson Becomes Seventh Archivist of the United States

Ronald Reagan was the only President to attend the swearing-in ceremony of an Archivist of the United States. On December 4, 1987, President Reagan stood alongside Congressman Dick Cheney as Don W. Wilson took his oath as the seventh Archivist of the United States. 

In his remarks, President Reagan noted, "It's an honor to be here in this place dedicated to our history with all of you who do so much to preserve the record of that history and to make it come alive for your fellow Americans."

President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore Viewing the Constitution at the National Archives (1995-07-19) by Photographs from the William J. Clinton Presidential LibraryU.S. National Archives

The 20th Century Concludes

President Bill Clinton was the last President to visit the National Archives Building in the 20th Century. He came on three occasions—first, in 1995, to advocate for federal affirmative action programs, and second, in 1997, to launch his White House Millennium Program.

President Clinton and First Lady Hilary Clinton in the National Archives Rotunda (1999-07-01) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

Saving the Nation’s Treasures

But President Clinton’s third visit was most notable for National Archives history. On July 1, 1999, as part of the President’s “Save America’s Treasures” initiative, the President and First Lady came to the National Archives Building to announce the Charters of Freedom Project.

Beginning on December 15, 1952, the founding documents were sealed in protective cases and placed on exhibit in the National Archives Rotunda. By the century's end, it was evident that the encasements were aging and needed updating. The National Archives used this opportunity to upgrade the materials that protect the founding documents and to develop new and engaging exhibits for visitors.

President Clinton speaking at the National Archives Building (1999-07-01) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

President Clinton spoke with optimism as the nation looked toward not only a new century, but a new millennium: “We can all take pride in our efforts to renew our national treasures, for in a larger sense, the story of our Nation is the story of constant renewal."

Before the structure was even complete, Presidents visited the National Archives Building. Their visits often commemorate consequential moments in our nation’s—and in National Archives—history. Part II of the exhibit explores how the National Archives Building has offered a symbolic site for 21st Century Presidents to link the nation’s historical legacy with their administration's vision.  

Credits: Story

Curator: Alyssa Moore
Project Manager: Jessie Kratz
Editor: Mary Ryan
Researcher: Kirsten Dillon 

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.
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