The Nuclear Bunker Where America Preserves Its Audio-Visual Heritage

 

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The Library of Congress has over 160 million items in its collection, including 23 million books, and more than 1.1 million films, and television programs ranging from motion pictures made in the 1890s to today’s TV programs. It has the original camera negatives of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery and Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind. It even has all the sequels of Scary Movie and modern hit TV shows such as Judge Judy. The library also holds nearly 3.5 million audio recordings of public radio broadcasts and music, representing over a hundred years of sound recording history. It has films and audio on nearly all formats, from cylinders to magnetic tapes to CDs. It’s the Noah’s Ark of the creative history of the United States.

Most of the library’s audio and video collections are stored in a Cold War bunker at the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains in Culpeper, Virginia. Known as the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, it is the Library of Congress’s latest audiovisual archive storage facility.

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The Packard Campus was originally built in 1969 as a high-security storage facility where the Federal Reserve Board stored $3 billion in cash, so that it could replenish the cash supply east of the Mississippi River in the event of a catastrophic war with the Soviet Union. Like most nuclear bunkers built during the Cold War period, the radiation-hardened Packard Campus was constructed of steel-reinforced concrete one foot thick, had lead-lined shutters and was surrounded dirt strips and barbed-wire fences. The bunker could also house up to 540 people for a month. It had beds and freeze-dried food, an incinerator, indoor pistol range, a helicopter landing pad and a cold-storage area for bodies awaiting burial in case radiation levels were too high to go outside.

After the Cold War ended, the bunker was decommissioned and sat abandoned for four years before it was purchased by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation on behalf of the Library of Congress. Nearly $240 million was spent transforming the bunker into a state-of-the-art storage facility with more than 90 miles of shelving for collections storage, 35 climate controlled vaults for sound recording, safety film, and videotape, and 124 nitrate film vaults.

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The facility also housed the Culpeper Switch, which was the central switching station of the Federal Reserve’s Fedwire electronic funds transfer system, which at the time connected only the Fed’s member banks. The Culpeper Switch also served as a data backup point for member banks east of the Mississippi River.

In 1988, all money was removed from Mount Pony. The Culpeper Switch ceased operation in 1992, its functions having been decentralized to three smaller sites. In addition, its status as continuity of government site was removed. The facility was poorly maintained by a skeleton staff until 1997 when the bunker was offered for sale. With the approval of the United States Congress, it was purchased by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond via a $5.5 million grant, done on behalf of the Library of Congress. With a further $150 million from the Packard Humanities Institute and $82.1 million from Congress, the facility was transformed into the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, which opened in mid-2007. The center offered, for the first time, a single site to store all 6.3 million pieces of the library’s movie, television, and sound collection.

 

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The Packard Campus was designed to be a green building, being situated mostly underground and topped with sod roofs. It was designed to have minimal visual impact on the Virginia countryside by blending into the existing landscape. From the northwest, only a semi-circular terraced arcade appears in the hill to allow natural light into the administrative and work areas. Additionally, the site also included the largest private sector re-forestation effort on the Eastern Seaboard, amassing over 9,000 tree saplings and nearly 200,000 other plantings.

The campus also contains a 206-seat theater capable of projecting both film and modern digital cinema and which features a digital organ that rises from under the stage to accompany silent film screenings. The Packard Campus currently holds semi-weekly screenings of films of cultural significance in its reproduction Art Deco theater.

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