- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

Jamie and Michael Mathison usually celebrate the Fourth of July with a backyard barbecue or a pool party in their suburban Kansas neighborhood. Good times, but not the stuff of scrapbook memories.
Yesterday, however, the couple stood in line on the steps of the National Archives to see the original Charters of Freedom.
The couple waited about an hour to walk through the Rotunda — and they were the lucky ones. Those who didn't view the documents yesterday won't get another chance for two years.
The Declaration of Independence, the first and last pages of the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights will be removed from their glass encasements this morning so they can undergo repairs and conservation work. The Rotunda, where the documents are displayed, also will close for renovations, though the National Archives building will remain open.
"For us, it's pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime deal," said Mrs. Mathison, 40. "This is something that we'll never forget. And who knows? This may be the only time we're here, so this has more meaning to us."
The Rotunda will reopen to the public in September 2003, when the charters will be re-encased.
So, for the thousands of visitors like the Mathisons who stood hours in line outside the Archives building on Constitution Avenue, yesterday's visit was even more special.
Nicole Jackson of Capitol Heights said she wanted to see a part of history on a day when the country celebrated its birthday. It was 225 years ago yesterday that the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
"We just came here because of what this country means to us," said Miss Jackson, who was among the first in line at 9:30 a.m. "We're here because we just want to appreciate the day and what it means, that there's no country like America."
The decision to make the repairs came in 1995 when the National Archives and Records Administration found signs of deterioration on the inner surfaces of the glass encasements. No signs of damage to the documents were visible, but officials said prolonged contact between the parchment and the glass could be harmful. Congress appropriated $4 million for the project.
The parchments, officials said, are in good condition. The text is legible, despite some ink loss and fading. All three documents were written by hand with iron gall ink.
Sometime today, the charters will be removed from their glass cases and taken to the National Archives facility in College Park. There, conservators will decide whether the documents will undergo any preservation work. It will be the first time in 50 years that the charters will be examined while not under glass.
The current casings, which were built in 1952, are glass and metal containers filled with helium. Once the work is complete, the charters will be placed in larger, airtight glass encasements, made of titanium and aluminum, with 24-karat plating to match the decor of the Rotunda.
After renovations to the Rotunda are complete, all four pages of the Constitution will be on display. Pages two and three are now stored in a vault beneath the display area.
Each encasement will be mounted on a stand whose height and angle have been designed to make the display more accessible to people in wheelchairs.
"It's a special day for us because it's the last day that these documents will be on display," said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives and Records Administration. "Tomorrow is a new beginning for us because this will be the first step toward making these charters more accessible to Americans."
At the same time, the Rotunda will be restored, making it handicapped accessible. The murals that form a backdrop for the charters — depicting James Madison presenting the final draft of the Constitution to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson presenting the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock — also will be repaired.
Officials said both pieces — each 12 feet high and 35 feet wide — have deteriorated and buckled over the years because of humidity.
James Sokol of Northwest who brought his wife, Anne, to the display one last time, said he will miss coming to see the charters. Mr. Sokol said he comes by the Archives at least once a year just to look at the documents.
"It's an amazing feeling when you see these original documents," he said as he stood in line. "They're just very special, and I hate to see them go even if it's for a little while."
Some say the charters bring people together, in good times and bad.
"This is where it all starts," said Stephon Atchison, a security guard from Upper Marlboro, pointing to the charters. "It's all about patriotism. All Americans have that patriotic tradition in them regardless of what's going on in the world. This is it, right here."

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