Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Designed by the Harrisburg architectural firm Lawrie & Green as part of the project for the William Penn Memorial complex, the current Pennsylvania State Archives building opened in October 1964. The need for a new archives building, however, dates back to when the State Archives was originally established in 1903 as the Division of Public Records under the State Library of Pennsylvania. For many decades the archives was crammed into tight quarters that hindered the division from serving its mission suitably. Its initial office space consisted of one room, approximately 1,750 square feet in the basement of what is now the Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building. In 1931 the archives moved into the Forum Building, which provided a modest increase of space to three rooms, with a total of 4,596 square feet. This still did not provide adequate space for records storage or staffing. Lawrie & Green’s drawing of the north elevation of the State Archives tower, created in November 1960 and approved in October 1961 by the State Art Commission, shows the reduced number of floors as well as the side glass blocks.

In 1949 the design firm of William Gehron of New York City was hired to produce architectural designs for a new archives building as part of a proposed museum and archives complex. This project was tabled after two years because of budgetary constraints. Gehron’s plans set forth the original concept of a tower for records storage, an idea that Lawrie & Green elaborated on when they took over the project in 1958. The tower would absorb very little of the available land area, and its considerable height would be complementary to the bulky form of the museum. The structure as designed would limit excess water accumulation on the roof, preventing potential damage from leaks. Each floor would be designed for vertical shelving to maximize storage capacity and allow for ease of access.

The State Archives staff arrived at their space request by visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and numerous other state archives throughout the United States. PHMC insisted it needed to contain about 10 percent of the storage capacity of the National Archives. This space was to be shared with the State Records Center. The archives tower was originally designed with 25 floors plus a basement mezzanine. The approval to begin construction was held up from 1960 to early 1961 because the General State Authority could not agree with PHMC staff on the tower’s height. PHMC and Lawrie & Green did not want the tower reduced by too many floors for fear that it would impact their plans for the complex.

They argued that the archives building as designed would cost only about $1 million alone, out of a total of $10 million to $11 million for the entire complex, and that removal of a few floors would save very little money overall. PHMC Executive Director S.K. Stevens stated, “The two buildings have been designed as a unit, and cannot be separated without a complete revision of all previous plans.” Eventually, PHMC agreed to reduce the tower to 21 floors to satisfy office space experts Becker & Becker Associates, who were commissioned by Governor David L. Lawrence’s administration. This left the building standing 218 feet, measuring from the lowest-level basement mezzanine.

The design of the tower was intended to be austere. The lack of traditional windows was conducive to archival standards of removing natural light from records storage areas. Lawrie & Green succeeded in making two sides of the tower more interesting by recessing parts of the walls and including translucent glass blocks on most floors above ground level.

By 2003 the storage tower was virtually filled with archival records. Funding for a new State Archives building was released in 2013. Architectural planning began in earnest in 2014. The State Archives staff is currently working with architects to design the building, which is slated to open in 2018.

Lawrie & Green’s drawing of the north elevation of the State Archives tower, created in November 1960 and approved in October 1961 by the State Art Commission, shows the reduced number of floors as well as the side glass blocks. This design is preserved in Record Group 20.35.

 

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders.