High up on a hill outside the Town of Culpeper sits an odd and unique building. A semi-recessed bunker from the Cold War that once housed the Federal Reserve Board’s emergency supply of cash (should the entire nation’s supply be destroyed) now holds a different treasure.
Priceless film and sound recordings from the Library of Congress are safely stored in the Packard Campus, part of the National Audio–Visual Conservation Center.
The bunker features 90 miles of shelving to store the library’s 6.2 million audio–video items, including every format from wax cylinder sound recordings to fragile 35 mm nitrate films. About 150 employees work to digitize and preserve the immense collection, which was rounded up from four different states and brought to Culpeper in 2007, when the four-year restoration of the building was completed.
Though the public can’t stroll through the 90 miles of shelving, the library offers a unique opportunity on weekends (typically Thursday through Saturday evenings) to view film and television recordings chosen by the staff. These are not folding-chairs-in-a-conference-room type screenings. When the Packard Humanities Institute and Congress spent over $200 million to restore the building, they included a 200-seat, Art Deco-style theater with state-of-the-art sound equipment and an organ for silent film showings. Movie posters on the walls outside the theater add to its authentic feel, so that the only thing missing is the popcorn.
“The films shown to the public are chosen from the library’s collections on a monthly basis by a diverse range of staff, and always include a number of titles on the National Film Registry,” said Gregory Lukow, chief of Audio Visual Conservation. “Other titles are selected because they tie in to other library exhibitions or themes. We also try and feature one or two silent film titles per month in order to showcase live musical accompaniment on the theater organ.”
But they’re not all classics. This summer’s lineup included “First Man” (2018) and “The Kids Are All Right” (2010) and went all the way back to 1927’s “Hula” with Clara Bow. Others are truly rare, such as a collection culled from a Pete Seeger television show called “Rainbow Quest” that aired in the mid-1960s on local stations in New Jersey. For some of the folk musicians appearing on the show, the recordings remain their only film appearances, and have not been viewed since the original air date. The schedule is posted online one month at a time.
The Packard Campus also hosts live events, such as musicians brought to Culpeper as part of a partnership with country music star Marty Stuart, re-creations of old radio programs and an annual open house.
Anyone interested in viewing specific items needs to obtain a researcher’s card and visit the Library’s Moving Image Research Center or Recorded Sound Research Center in the Madison Building on Capitol Hill, where items from the Packard Campus may be sent for public access.
Descriptions of the site do include the word “stunning,” but visitors will still be pleasantly surprised. The road rises sharply up the hill, and in summer, tall grasses obscure the building.
A gravel path winds around to the front of the building, covered in ivy and encircling a reflecting pool. Carpets of wildflowers fall away from the bluff; on the horizon, the sun sets behind the mountains. Even State Route 3 makes a curve and manages to look almost charming.
There’s a feeling of being in a natural amphitheater, while inside is a theater that showcases American creativity. Both are beautiful.