By the 1920’s it was clear that the Federal Government needed more storage space. Priceless documents like The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and original pages of famous presidential speeches and Congressional bills were being kept around town tucked in libraries, attics, basements, and storage rooms.
In 1926 The Public Buildings Act was passed by Congress which funded this much-needed storage. The very first building, the National Archives would be built to house some of the most valuable records in the world, including the Founding Charters of the United States.
The architect, John Russel Pope was instructed to design a building in the Neo-classical style to store and exhibit our national treasures and documents vital to US history. Pope selected a site at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW exactly midway between the White House, the Executive branch of our government, and the US Capitol, the Legislative branch because so many artifacts in the Archives would be created by those institutions.
The resulting building was finally opened in 1937. It is constructed of marble over steel beams; the exterior showcases 72 magnificent Corinthian columns. When it was built systems were installed to properly conserve the Archives artifacts. These systems have been upgraded consistently over the years with the last major upgrades, including the installation of new display cases between 2001 and 2006.
When the Archives building was completed in 1937 it opened without two of the famous documents it was built to protect: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It was not until 1952 after rigorous negotiating that the Librarian of Congress eventually allowed these two precious documents to be transferred to the new building.
Today the Founding Charters of the United States, The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are displayed in air-tight cases in the Rotunda of the Archives. You will be able to stand directly in front of these documents to view them in their cases.
The collection at the Archives also contains a very early copy of the Magna Carta. Notable speeches, proclamations, and artifacts are rotated out of storage for public viewing regularly.
When the Declaration of Independence and Constitution finally arrived at the Archives both were ceremoniously walked into the Archives through immense decorative brass entry doors. These decorative doors have now been closed to the public. To enter the Archives, use the side entrances facing 7th St, NW, or 9th St, NW. The building is now ADA compliant with elevators and ramps. As a note to families and school groups, the Archives staff will ask visiting groups not to run or shout and to view all exhibits with quiet respect.