National Archives building - Washington DC
The National Archives building was substantially completed under the New Deal and the central stacks were added with funding from the Public Works Administration (PWA).
In 1926, Congress approved $8.7 million for a home for the National Archives. The Public Buildings Commission and Commission on Fine Arts had to approve the site and design, which led to much jostling over where it would fit within the larger plans for a “Federal Triangle” in the center of the city. As a result, the site was moved twice before the architect, John Russell Pope, was officially appointed by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and his design approved in 1931.
Construction of the national archives did not start until September 1931. The foundation was laid and the cornerstone placed by President Herbert Hoover during his last weeks in office in February 1933. Construction above ground began just as President Franklin Roosevelt arrived in office in March 1933 and was overseen by the newly-created Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. The exterior of the building was completed in late 1935 and staff began to move into their offices – but no records had arrived yet.
The scope of the National Archives had changed dramatically in the meantime, thanks to the New Deal.
A National Archives Act was proposed by the new administration and passed by Congress in June 1934, making the archives an independent agency and designating the National Archives as the repository for all federal records. Soon, the staff began a survey of all records of federal agencies – many of which were in dire condition – to put them in order and decide which ones should be saved and which ones disposed of.
Archive staff surveyed all the federal offices in Washington DC, while Works Progress Administration (WPA) teams examined records of federal agencies throughout the rest of the country in 1935-36. WPA enrollees surveyed records of over 7,000 agencies in over 5,000 buildings, adding up to more than 2 million linear feet (380 miles) of records. The results were published in over 500 volumes in 1943. This work expanded the records of the National Archives enormously.
It was quickly realized that the space allotted in the original plan for the immense quantity of archival materials would be far from sufficient. Therefore, a new plan had to be drawn up for stacks in the large courtyard of the unfinished building – doubling its storage capacity. That plan, called the “extension building,” was funded by a PWA grant of $3.7 million, approved in September 1934 and a contract was issued in December 1935 to McCloskey & Co of Philadelphia. The new stacks were completed in 1937 – the date of completion noted in the National Archives’ official timeline.
The volume of records kept by the federal government would only grow with the New Deal, so further acts of Congress were required to deal with their disposition: the General Disposal Act of 1939 and the Photographed Records Disposal Act of 1940.
To learn more about the New Deal development of the National Archives, see our summary, National Archives and Records Administration (1934), under New Deal Programs.
James Gregory Bradsher, "An Administrative History of the Disposal of Federal Records, 1789-1949," Provenance - Journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists, volume 3, no. 2, January 1985. https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1307&context=provenance
Nelson Shephard, "Archives addition contract signed", Washington Evening Star, December 15, 1935.
Project originally submitted by Richard Walker on December 14, 2019.
Additional contributions by Brent McKee.
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