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Secretary's Office

  • Fire in Capitol clarifies need for safe storage of public records
  • Secretary's Office
  • Oldest archival structure in western hemisphere
  • Building safe from fire, warm and dry
  • Records moved to Richmond in 1780

Original example of 18th-century thinking about record storage buildings

The Secretary's Office is the oldest archival structure in the western hemisphere and an original example of 18th-century thinking about how to make a building safe from fire but warm and reliably dry.

The origins of the hip-roofed, one-story brick building are found in the flames that consumed the Capitol on January 30, 1747. From that conflagration were saved many of the records stored next to the General Court in the office of the colony's secretary. The question was how to preserve these and similar documents from further danger.

Court secretary introduced bill to erect building

April 15 the secretary asked leave to introduce a bill in the House of Burgesses "for erecting a Building for the Preservation of the Public Records of this Colony." The secretary's proposal was "resolved in the Affirmative." Two weeks later, the Governor's Council appointed four of its members to hire a builder; on December 2, 1748, the £367 19s 7d construction bill was paid.

Raised in Flemish bond with glazed headers, the secretary's office – as the building was commonly called – stands 56 feet long and 23 feet over a low basement. There are five bays in the front and three in the back. Rubbed bright orange-red brick was used for window lintels.

The most distinctive feature of the Public Records Office is a doorway pedimented with rubbed and gauged brick and approached by five round steps of Shrewsbury stone. Archaeologists unearthed the steps when restoration began in the 20th century.

Interior structure mostly brick for fire prevention

Inside, the central hallway is 23.5 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Right and left are rooms 13 feet wide. The interior walls are made of plaster laid on brick, and the floors are made of stone flags – features designed to discourage fire. Only the wooden chair rails on the walls are flammable.

Fireplaces constructed to prevent downdrafts from sending sparks into rooms

Nevertheless, there are four fireplaces. In an era when ideas about condensation were imperfect, the colonists thought heat was necessary to drive the humid air out of the building to protect the documents and leather-bound record books from mildew and mold. Each fireplace is contrived to keep downdrafts in the two chimneys from driving sparks into the rooms.

Records moved to Richmond in 1780

After the Virginia government moved to Richmond in 1780 and took its documents with it, the Public Records Office became a Court of Admiralty, Justice Benjamin Waller presiding. When the Capitol became a grammar school, its headmaster, Maury Walker, made the office his home. It later served as a female academy, but reached the 20th century, much modified, as a home.

The Secretary's Office is not a Colonial Williamsburg exhibition site.