Get our free newsletter
The D.C. Archives says just as much about the city’s present as its past.
The first place you’d probably go in search of recent D.C. history on the 1300 block of Naylor Court NW is a store called Thrift Shoppers Paradise. A small shop that sells new, used, and “unabused” furniture, Thrift Shoppers attracts a constant trickle of visitors who prowl the store and alley space in front of it for precious secondhand finds and assorted kitsch. Thrifty shoppers comb over the sizable assortment of radios, chairs, and bicycles in search of loot that might net them big bucks on Antiques Roadshow.
A somewhat smaller number of urban historians cross the alley and enter a boxy beige building to unearth other D.C. treasures, such as Duke Ellington’s birth record and Cora Masters Barry’s marriage license. First built as a horse barn and later used as a bus garage, 1300 Naylor Court now hosts the D.C. Archives. There’s no question which building is more user-friendly: Visitors need a key—or to press the buzzer outside—to get entry into the city’s past, whereas Thrift Shoppers is open to any adventurous consumer.
D.C.’s clandestine approach to its past has a history, apparently: “Probably many residents of Washington do not know where the Archives of the District are to be found,” notes a Washington Star article from Oct. 1, 1905. At the opposite bookend of the 20th century, the city’s archives remain largely hidden. Ten years ago, with limited pomp and circumstance, the D.C. Archives and Records Management Division moved into its current digs. But last week, the cream-colored building’s entryway appeared to serve as a holding bin for Thrift Shoppers Paradise: a green metal desk, faux-wood coffee table, wooden dresser, and orange-and-white bureau, as well as a roll of worn beige carpeting, greeted history buffs and curious citizens alike who approached the archive’s locked inside door.
“The building is good for keeping records,” says Roxanna Deane, change agent for internal affairs for the D.C. Public Library, who worked in the Martin Luther King Library’s Washingtoniana Division for 20 years. “It’s never been able to serve people as well.”
In the lobby, an impressive portrait of Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the public works commissioner who created much of the modern city’s infrastructure, looms over abandoned desks and pleather couches scrunched together. It’s hardly as majestic an approach to the past as the classical National Archives building, only blocks away at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
But, in some ways, the D.C. Archives is an appropriate artifact of Dream City: The building’s forlorn lobby could double as one of those other once-heralded outposts of the municipal bureaucracy—like the eerie lobby of the Reeves Center. Inside the archives, the main room, which houses many of the city’s birth, death, and marriage records, as well as papers from D.C. agencies, looks like a place better suited to house old order forms from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue.
In many respects, the D.C. Archives tells the story of Washington, D.C.’s recent history a lot more accurately than the distant past it’s empowered to preserve.
Soon after opening at Naylor Court in 1990, the archives became a casualty of the District’s fiscal crisis. The staff of about 12 and budget of $550,000 have shriveled to one-third of those numbers. Though news accounts of contemporary Washington stress the city’s revival, the archives remains a victim of the not-so-distant past.
If historic preservation is key to understanding a city’s past and future, D.C. might run the risk of municipal Alzheimer’s pretty soon. For years, the federal government treated the District—and its records—as it did any other federal agency. D.C.’s records sat quietly on the monumental shelves of the National Archives, home to the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Home rule changed all that. Freed from the federal yoke, the city got the right to liberate its records from the nooks and crannies between 1962 Commerce Department budget-planning session notes and the 1981 Alexander Haig birthday party guest list.
But it also acquired the responsibility to keep its mementos in order. That’s the part the city hasn’t quite worked out yet.
“A very important expression of the city’s independence is to control its own records,” says Philip W. Ogilvie, D.C.’s former director of public records, who now works as a senior associate at George Washington University’s Institute of Tourism Studies. In 1982, Ivanhoe Donaldson, a close adviser to Mayor Marion Barry, asked Ogilvie—an eager Barry campaign worker and staffer—to examine the city’s records and archives.
Ogilvie reported back that the city had no plan to control its own history. “Marion said, ‘Fix it,’” Ogilvie recalls. “And he gave us his full support.”
Ogilvie first needed to find an appropriate vessel for the records. He settled on the former B.F. McCaully & Co. Tally-Ho Stables—”one of the finest and best kept stables in the city,” according to a turn-of-the-century newspaper advertisement displayed at the archives. But when Ogilvie walked through the city-owned building in the early ’80s, he saw a rather different chapter of the city’s history at his feet. “The building had become a shooting gallery,” says Ogilvie. “When we looked at it, we were stepping over mattresses and people.”
After cleaning out the space, Ogilvie planned to turn the archives into one of D.C.’s treasures. He began the transfer of many of the city’s records from the National Archives, as well as from other repositories such as the city’s Office of Vital Records. And, with many of those records now in place, the archives’ tall shelves do indeed contain many of the city’s stories. Birth and death records dating back to 1874 are bound in leather books. Marriage records go back to 1811. A couple of shelves contain archaeological specimens from the excavation of the land underneath the MCI Center in Chinatown.
Unfortunately, however, the same excavation tactics are sometimes necessary to get to the records.
“I think it’s such a great resource. You have a tendency to find things you wouldn’t expect to find,” says Kristyna Olsen, an architectural historian with EHT Traceries Inc., who uses the archives frequently.
Indeed. Plopped among the records for the Department of Public Works, for example, are boxes on mobile carts containing records for the 1978 and 1982 mayoral transition committee meetings, records of cabinet meetings from Barry’s first administration, and notes from mayoral pre-policy-discussion meetings held during 1984 and 1985. The notes are stacked in cardboard boxes, uncatalogued.
Ogilvie blames the disarray on meager budgets. When the city’s financial crisis hit hard, soon after the archives opened at Naylor Court, he says, his vision for the archives suffered a blow. “For an agency that hadn’t reached its potential, the across-the-board cuts were a lot more devastating than to an old-line agency that was operating at 100 percent capacity or better,” says Ogilvie. “It meant that everything was a response to an immediate crisis.”
For the most part, it still is. The archives maintains a staff of only four people: archivist Bob Nelson, Director of Public Records Clarence Davis, and two clerks, who mainly deal with records management. “We’re looking to be more creative in staffing and budgeting,” says Beverly D. Rivers, Secretary of the District of Columbia, whose office oversees the archives and records management divisions.
Many D.C. records—approximately 3,000 cubic feet of them—have yet to be extracted from the maze of federal records at the National Archives. Regardless of the home rule symbolism, that’s where Ogilvie would like them to stay. “Until the D.C. Archives are adequately funded and adequately staffed, I think the remaining records should really stay with the National Archives,” says Ogilvie. When he retired, in 1997, Ogilvie suggested that the city enter into a contractual agreement with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.—a private foundation in Dupont Circle that collects D.C. artifacts—to maintain the archives.
The idea hasn’t received much consideration since then, though many states hire private entities to do the very same work. Rivers explains that the proposal was put on the back burner after legislation to make the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the city’s official historical society was tabled last year. Rivers says that the archives aren’t just a bad memory, though. “We have plans for the archives,” Rivers says. “We have a proposal to find a new location.”
Washington history, of course, matters. And not just to people who live here and want to know which 19th-century train robber once slept in their attic. As the federal capital—and as a petri dish for social-policy experiments from the Great Society to the Gingrich Revolution—the District provides fertile ground for scholarly study.
“The city has been a testing ground,” says the D.C. Public Library’s Deane. “There have been tons of surveys on this place, in particular on the public schools, for instance.” By allowing records and artifacts to rot, the city loses those important lessons from its own past.
“For most people, the bottom line is more important than the esoterics of history, and losing the city’s past can have a real economic impact,” says Ogilvie. For example, attorneys often need to use the city’s land records to settle debates over property ownership, Ogilvie says.
During the month of December, 36 people visited the D.C. Archives, according to the building’s visitor’s log. Nelson says the archives receives many more requests in writing, which he tries to address as quickly as possible.
The requests are often genealogical inquiries, from people looking up family history, for example. “This might not be seen as pressing, but in the long run, it’s incredibly important to preserve resources and, essentially, stories,” says Barbara Franco, executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Last year, adds society librarian Gail Redmann, the society received a donation of a young woman’s diary. It had no name on it, but inside Redmann found an envelope addressed to Miss Caroline Stone, The Don Carlos Apartments, City, with a postmark of Washington, D.C.
Using census records from the early part of the century located at the MLK Library’s Washingtoniana Division, Redmann and Washingtoniana librarian Matthew Gilmore acted like detectives to track down information about Stone’s family. The pair then employed marriage records found at the archives, as well as a high school yearbook from the D.C. Public Schools’ Charles Sumner Museum, to reconstruct Stone’s life history. The search finally led to Stone’s obituary from a Newport, R.I., newspaper. They now use Stone’s diary to teach a course on researching family history. “We don’t just preserve old stuff—we preserve old stories,” Redmann says. CP