Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960

History of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) – Part 1

The Library of Congress
Packard Campus for Audio–Visual Conservation

(formerly: NAVCC – The National Audio–Visual Conservation Center)

“Preserving the Past”

(Click HERE for Part 2)

Part 1.

In the Beginning:

During the early 1960s, when the Cold War was still very “hot”, the United States Federal Reserve Board decided that a secure Communications and Records Center should be built outside of Washington, DC. The small town of Culpeper, VA, 73 miles southwest of Washington was chosen to be the site of this facility, and 45 acres of land around nearby Mount Pony were purchased.

Map of the Culpeper area.

Into Mt. Pony the Federal Reserve built a 400 foot long, radiation hardened, underground bunker of steel–reinforced, one–foot thick concrete. This high security 140,000 square foot facility provided storage for around $3 billion worth of U.S. currency, all neatly shrink–wrapped and stacked on pallets 9 feet high. The currency was meant to be used to replenish money supplies in case of nuclear attack.

Dedicated on December 10, 1969, the underground bunker could also support a staff of up to 540 for 30 days in case of an emergency. But by the late 1980s the facility had become a Cold War relic, and in 1993 it was finally decommissioned.

The Library of Congress Acquires the Facility:

The Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, serves as the national library of the United States. An abbreviated list of its services includes research for the U.S. Congress; collecting, cataloging, and preserving materials in many media for researchers; acting as the copyright agency for the U.S.; providing services for the blind and the physically handicapped; maintaining public reading rooms; and sponsoring musical, literary and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world.

Beginning with a modest 740 volumes and 3 maps in 1801, The Library of Congress’ collections now total over 135 million items ranging from one of the three perfect copies of the “Gutenberg Bible” to rare comic books, and from etchings, photographs, manuscripts, and personal papers to the largest number of books and journals ever assembled. The library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting, & Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) maintains the world’s largest collection of theatrical films, newsreels, television programs, radio broadcasts, early voice recordings of historical figures, and commercial sound recordings, along with more than 2.1 million supporting documents, screenplays, manuscripts, photographs, and press kits. This collection continues to grow at the rate of 120,000 items plus 10,000 to 20,000 hours of captured off–air and online content annually.

The Library of Congress has known for a long time that its enormous MBRS collection, housed in seven facilities spread out over three states and the District of Columbia, needed to be consolidated. But it wasn’t until they received a $5.5 million grant from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation that they were able to begin the process of acquiring the former Federal Reserve facility near Culpeper for that purpose. Once Congress authorized the transfer of the Federal Reserve property in November 1997, The Packard Humanities Institute (headed by Dr. David W. Packard) offered to provide an unprecedented $155 million to complete the project.

With the $155 million grant from the Packard Institute, and an additional $82 million from Congress, the Library of Congress and the Packard Institute were able to completely renovate the existing bunker and build additional buildings for what is now “The Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio–Visual Conservation”, (formerly: The National Audio–Visual Conservation Center – NAVCC). The 415,000 square foot complex consists of four buildings: the Collections Building, which is the renovated Federal Reserve bunker; the Central Plant, which is the electrical “heart” of the complex; the Conservation Building, which houses administrative offices, preservation laboratories, and a 206–seat theater; and the Nitrate Vault Building, consisting of two “storage pods” with a total of 124 blast–proof vaults for storing the flammable and highly explosive cellulose nitrate film used for motion pictures before 1953.

The NAVCC Packard Campus under construction.

Reflecting the Past While Anticipating the Future:

Although the Packard Campus is largely underground, the west front of the 175,000 square foot Conservation Building curves out from the side of Mount Pony in a sweeping arc clearly visible from the surrounding countryside. Dr. David Packard, a classicist and former professor of Greek and Latin, wanted the complex to have the look and texture of classical buildings, so every exposed concrete surface was sandblasted to give it the rough finish of a classical structure.

In a novel and complex landscaping feat, the top and side of Mount Pony were scraped off the building site and set aside during construction. The earth was eventually replaced over the tops of the completed buildings. The mountain slope and surrounding landscape were replanted with dozens of species of upland meadow perennials, 14 different grasses, and thousands of saplings representing 12 species of trees. Exposed vines and native plants were planted on and around the Conservation Building so that as the vines grew over the staggered tiers and terraces formed by the structure’s concrete beam and column openings, the façade would appear to become part of the hillside. This unique landscaping effort became the largest reforestation project on the East Coast.

Views of the NAVCC Conservation Building.

The centerpiece of the Packard Campus, and its most visible structure, is the glass and concrete Conservation Building. Although the main site for patron access to the Packard Campus’ collections will be the Motion Picture and Television Reading Rooms at The Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the Conservation Building does contain a 20–seat, state–of–the–art Listening Room that can be used for programs and exhibits of the Packard Campus’ audio collection, and a 206–seat theater that will offer periodic film and video programs for visitors. So, even though the Packard Campus is primarily designed for the storage and preservation of America’s audiovisual collection, and will normally be open only to credentialed researchers, the Conservation Building does have areas where the general public can discover and enjoy their audiovisual heritage.

Floorplan of the Conservation Building's first floor.

Click to Continue to Part 2

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