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New Life for an Old Federal Building

The National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. has received an all-encompassing facelift designed to bring it up to code and attract more visitors to it

By Tom Gibson

On a typical early spring day, throngs of locals and tourists fill the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C., many walking, running, bicycling, or flying a kite in the linear grassy space between the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol Building. Further down, the annual cherry blossoms splash their vibrant colors around the reflecting pool between the World War II Memorial and Lincoln Memorial.

This scenario epitomizes the heart and soul of D.C. and explains why busloads of young and old come here on field trips. Anyone who has visited the city created by Pierre L’Enfant knows it offers a host of such experiences, ranging from the White House to the Smithsonian Institution. Across bustling Constitution Avenue from the mall, the National Archives Building stands tall as another example of an educational experience rich in history but one that doesn’t show up on most tour itineraries.

That may change, though, as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is just completing a major, long-term renovation project on the building to make it a more attractive place to visit. Marvin Pinkert, director of museum programs at NARA, describes the building’s renovation as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” With a total budget of $110 million spread over seven major projects, the main thrust is to modernize the structure and bring it up to various codes, improve storage conditions for documents, and enhance the experience for people viewing them. It offers a lesson in overhauling and preserving a structure built under different codes and with different construction techniques than exist today.

A federal agency, NARA safeguards our nation's history by overseeing all federal records, including those of the current White House, the Supreme Court, Congress, and conflicts ranging from the Revolutionary War to World War I. They maintain them for public display and inspection, and people come to the National Archives Building to do research, mostly genealogical. They may peruse land records, pension records for wars, immigration records, or census data from 1790 to 1930.

In 1926, Congress authorized construction of the National Archives Building as part of a massive public buildings program designed to beautify the center of Washington, D.C. and provide office space for the growing federal bureaucracy. Noted architect John Russell Pope designed the National Archives building in 20th Century Neo-Classical manner. Ground was broken in 1931, and completion came in 1935.

Tom Rohrbaugh, vice president of facilities engineering for URS Engineers, an engineering firm involved in the renovation project, says in describing it, “They had many code issues that needed to be corrected. Issues like not having enough stairways for proper exiting of the building, fire conditions that had to be brought up to current standards. They wanted to look at ways to improve the environmental conditions of the building because of many old records. It was kind of a grand lets-capture-all-these-things-with-a-complete-renovation-of-the-building.”

Such a plan has involved extensive work effecting virtually every space within the building, located half way between the White House and Capitol. Special provisions had to be made to minimize the impact on the records and staff, who would continue to occupy the building during the renovation. Hartman-Cox Architects of Washington, D.C. served as the prime contractor for the design effort with general engineering work subcontracted to URS Engineers and fire safety and security design to Gage-Babcock and Associates, both national engineering firms. URS’ work involved mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural engineering handled out of their D.C. office. Grunley Construction of Rockville, Maryland, a firm specializing in historic renovation of occupied buildings, served as general contractor.

I first get a feel for the federal building as I’m greeted by heavy security at the front door on the Pennsylvania Avenue side. Guards were checking people and bags like they would at an airport. After I meet with Pat Alexander, project manager for NARA, he tells me the building previously only had two entrances and exits, making it hazardous. “It was like a vault.” In further describing the project, he says, “One thing that was interesting was how construction techniques had changed over the years.” For example, crews discovered asbestos sealants used in masonry walls, red lead paint on steel beams to protect them from corrosion, and asbestos insulation on pipes. “When you open up a wall, you never know what you’ll find. We’ve done a lot of abatement work.” In revealing his background, Alexander tells me he got an all-around engineering degree from the Naval Academy and worked previous jobs as an industrial engineer and facility manager.

Planning for the National Archives Building renovation actually started in 1985, but it took on a sense of urgency in 1997 when deterioration in the glass encasements holding the Charters of Freedom documents was discovered. These include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, all displayed to the public in the Rotunda of the building. The Charters of Freedom were displayed in hermetically sealed glass encasements filled with inert helium gas. NARA officials determined they should be taken off display for two years starting in July 2001 while new marble and ornamental bronze encasements were constructed for them. Meanwhile, a construction project to renovate spaces immediately surrounding the Rotunda and those supporting it was accelerated to require completion within that time.

As we walk into the Rotunda, Alexander points out, “This is the heart of the public display area.” The Rotunda was previously used for displaying everything to the public. Only a small number of records could be displayed, and they were difficult for some to view. NARA wanted to dedicate the Rotunda fully to the Charters of Freedom and open up space elsewhere for other attractions. So they converted three floors of storage area to public museum areas and exhibit galleries, with new entrances, a museum shop, and a research area all located within the new space.

Scott Teixeira, project architect for Hartman-Cox Architects, says, “Another reason the building was renovated was to enable greater access to people with ambulatory disabilities, to make it compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. This affects the arrangement of ramps and elevators and the way you flow through the gallery, the public circulation spaces, and how you gain access from the street to the entrance of the building through security and ultimately to the exhibit level and Rotunda. All that had been bandaided in the past with a series of ramps.”

Accommodating new display space and the ADA required structural changes because the building was designed as a records depository, meaning few people at a time would work in the space, and loads were minimal. As we walk through corridors and rooms, Alexander reveals, “This space used to be all seven-foot floors.” To maximize the amount of records stored, over 75 percent of the building consisted of 21 floors only seven feet apart. The building had a concrete floor every 21 feet and then two steel deck floors at seven feet each. “We needed to improve the headroom. So, we removed the lower six seven-foot floors and replaced them with three 14-foot floors.” They replaced the lighter decking floors with structural steel and concrete to support heavier loads, and they put stiffeners in columns to enable them to handle greater loads.

In another arena, Alexander adds, “As far as mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems go, the project saw virtually a complete replacement of all the systems and components.” This had the greatest effect when it came to HVAC systems. “To meet the conditions for storage of the records, we had to replace all the duct work and the complete chiller plant. Before, the best we could do was about 72 or 73 degrees F. and about 52 percent humidity. But for the long-term life of the records, the conservationists wanted to get down to 65 degrees and 45 percent humidity.”

As Tom Rohrbaugh explains, achieving 65 degrees, 45 percent R.H. “wasn’t difficult from a refrigeration standpoint. The difficulty arose from the distribution standpoint. How do you get it into these large archival record floors that have tight floor space? You can’t run ductwork through there because the headroom is so limited. So we had to just replace all the vertical duct risers. Literally, we kind of ringed the stack area with duct risers to create cross flows in the stacks so we could still cool the space but not intrude upon it.” Old risers were replaced because they were wrapped in cork insulation, which smolders in a fire, and sealed with asbestos, a common practice in old days.

Rohrbaugh goes on to add, “One of the interesting things was the fact they drew condenser water through two 36-inch lines from the Tidal Basin. They wanted to get off that system because the water temperature was unpredictable, and it was dirty water. That made the cooling aspect of the refrigeration of the building unpredictable. So, we cut a big hole in the roof of the building and took three floors out and dropped four cooling towers into the roof. That was a difficult thing to do.” Visibility concerns dictated recessing the towers into the roof, to make the tops flush with the it.

On the electrical side, Alexander says, “Our transformers and main switchgear were dated from 40 to 60 years ago,” and Rohrbaugh adds, “The power was under capacity. So we put in a large new transformer vault and switchgear vault under the front lawn of the building.” They upgraded other transformer vaults as well.

One of the more complicated jobs in the renovation involved lowering an existing parking garage on grade 15 or 20 feet to make a new 300-seat movie theater underneath the Constitution Avenue stairs. A steam line running down Constitution Avenue used to heat buildings in the Federal Triangle coursed through the site, so they had to build a new steam tunnel under the sidewalk before they dug out the theater, a feat Alexander describes as “a major project in itself.” The steam line comes from a Government Services Administration steam plant, just south of the Washington Mall, that feeds all federal buildings in downtown D.C.

With the first phase of the work complete, the Rotunda reopened to the public September 18, 2001, Constitution Day. A second, overlapping phase of renovation involved completing work throughout the building, including public spaces, the theater, and research rooms on the ground and basement levels not associated with the Rotunda. Crews have also completed fire alarm and security work throughout the building and modernization of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems in the penthouse, including the installation of seven new air handling units and a new motor control center. Phase Two saw completion in late 2004.

After touring the building with Alexander and hearing about the renovation, I took off my writer’s hat and strolled through the new public vaults like a regular visitor. Actually a maze of rooms surrounding the Rotunda, the area contains a plethora of museum-like displays on U.S. government history. Then I took in the Rotunda, where the light is low to protect the documents from ultraviolet radiation -- the lighting uses fiber optics. Hordes of people of all ages milled around looking at the documents created by our founding fathers.

NARA is trying to get more people to visit the National Archives Building and take advantage of the records it contains. As I made my way out of the building, many school groups were coming through security on tours so students could learn some history, offering proof NARA has accomplished its goal. Indeed, before the renovation, they were getting one million visitors a year on the public side and 200,000 on the research side. Now they get 300 visitors an hour.

Some work remains, as evidenced by miscellaneous construction still going on inside the building. But enough has been accomplished that Rohrbaugh can reflect back on the renovation. “It was a heck of a project. A tough one, but also rewarding.”

For more information on the National Archives Building, visit

For more information on URS Engineers, visit

For more information on Gage-Babcock and Associates, visit

Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer