Vacant lots on Harrisburg’s 6th Street will soon get a new building filled with some very old décor.
The state Department of General Services got the first stamp of approval for its new State Archives facility, a four-story, state-of-the-art structure that will also create a permanent home for Harrisburg’s record collections.
DGS representatives presented the preliminary land use proposal to the Harrisburg Planning Commission on Wednesday night. They plan to develop 2½ vacant acres on N. 6th Street between Harris and Hamilton streets with a modern, glass-and-brick structure, a public plaza and a below-ground parking area.
Although project leaders shared preliminary renderings at Wednesday’s public meeting, they refused to allow TheBurg to photograph them.
With unanimous approval from the commission, DGS will now seek approval from Harrisburg City Council.
DGS first announced plans to build the archives at 1681 N. 6th Street in 2016. The state hopes to put the project out to bid in spring 2019 and break ground in the summer, according to Daniel Vodzak, an architect at the Lemoyne-based firm Vitetta. He expects construction will last two years.
Much like the federal courthouse that broke ground last month, the long-awaited archives building is expected to spur development on Harrisburg’s struggling 6th Street corridor.
Harrisburg officials and history enthusiasts are also relieved that the city’s archives will have a safe, accessible home after languishing for years in substandard storage.
“This is a great win for the city,” Mayor Eric Papenfuse said. “We have all of these fragile, aging and decaying documents, and we want to put them in a place where they can be preserved.”
Harrisburg’s archives, which include death and tax records, city directories, historical photos and other memorabilia dating back to the early 19th century, are currently stored in a mansion in Reservoir Park. They were housed in a Parking Authority office in Strawberry Square until the city privatized its parking assets in 2014.
When state officials announced their plans to build a new archive facility, Papenfuse lobbied for them to carve out space for Harrisburg’s collection.
He later convinced the Wolf administration to scrap plans to build the archive facility in Susquehanna Township and helped them select a parcel of vacant lots on 6th Street mostly owned by Susquehanna Township-based Vartan Group.
“This idea of putting the archives in a research park where they’re less accessible to the public didn’t sit well with me,” said Papenfuse, whose father served as the Maryland state archivist for 30 years.
Members of the public can’t access Harrisburg’s archives in the current location in Reservoir Park. The aging facility also isn’t climate-controlled, leaving the documents vulnerable to mold, moisture and temperature fluctuation.
“A lot of people don’t know the archives even exist,” said Calobe Jackson, Jr., a historian and lifelong Harrisburg resident.
Jackson hopes the new facility will encourage more residents to explore the city’s history.
“It’s necessary to increase the size, and I think combining the city archive with the state will be great for everyone,” Jackson told the Planning Commission last night.
The proposed archive building will feature a “self-service zone” where visitors can access digitized archives from the state and the city’s collections. Patrons can also view original records and artifacts in a separate, climate-controlled viewing room.
Preliminary renderings call for a modern, glass-box building with a concrete frame and brick siding. A solar shade atop the building will filter out sun, since UV light can degrade paper records.
The temperature and humidity in the facility must be precisely calibrated to preserve the aging paper records. The main storage facility will be windowless, but the reading rooms, processing rooms and staff offices will have natural light thanks to UV-resistant glass windows.
The extensive HVAC apparatus will be housed in an enclosed equipment courtyard outside. The campus will also feature a landscaped public plaza along 6th and Harris streets.
Harrisburg will retain ownership of its records when it transfers them to the new archives facility, but the memorandum of understanding it signed with the state historical office waives storage and management fees.
The city does not currently employ an archivist. Plans to hire one stalled when the city declared a hiring freeze earlier this summer.
But with an expected three years before the project is complete, Harrisburg will have plenty of time to prepare its archives for transfer, Papenfuse said.
The state archives are currently housed in a tower at 3rd and Forster streets on the grounds of the Pennsylvania State Museum. Andrea Lowery, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, said that the state is conducting a feasibility study to decide how to reuse the structure.