Magazine article USA TODAY

Building the Pentagon

Magazine article USA TODAY

Building the Pentagon

Article excerpt

Three times the size of the Empire State Building, covering 35 acres, it proved a marvel of construction, despite the material shortages of World War II.

THE PENTAGON already had become a legend before it officially opened its doors on Jan. 15, 1943. Washingtonians, accustomed to thinking in terms of gargantuan, were talking in awe of the largest air-conditioned structure and biggest office building in the world, in the process of being constructed to house the nation's burgeoning Army.

As war came to Europe in 1939-40, Washington began bustling with military activity. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully roused his countrymen and the Congress to the dangers European fascism posed to democracy, and America began to rebuild its military forces, which had been allowed to deteriorate drastically during the inter-war years of isolationism. The War Department, like so many other government agencies at the time, soon found itself facing a severe shortage of office space.

By 1941, the Army's offices were housed in 17 separate buildings in the District of Columbia, including the Social Security and Railroad Retirement buildings, that had been constructed for other purposes. A typical high-ranking officer testified before the Congress that his business normally took him to several different offices daily and he wasted many hours in travel. Congress agreed that the military forces needed a separate headquarters. The question became one of location in the crowded capital.

The Army constructed a building on Virginia Ave., near Constitution Ave., in an area known as Foggy Bottom, at a cost of $9,000,000. Secretary of War Henry Stimson hated the structure, however, and refused to move into it because he maintained that it was too small and the facade looked like the entrance to a rural opera house. The Department of State eventually occupied it.

Gen. Brehon Somervell, head of the Army Quartermaster Corps' Construction Division, who had supervised construction of New York's LaGuardia Airport, was put in charge of erecting a new edifice. Gen. Leslie Groves, later father of the Manhattan Project, served as his deputy. Somervell convinced Congressmen he could construct a huge building that would meet military needs for both the Army and Navy, including furnishings and landscaping, for $35,000,000, and Congress voted the money. He chose a site across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va., in part because the area was being underutilized and also to encourage the trend to move out of D.C. The design of the new building was five-sided to conform to the existing roads and surrounding features of the site.

Roosevelt approved of the plan, but insisted that the location was too close to Arlington National Cemetery and would desecrate that hallowed ground. Somervell then selected and began clearing a site further south on the Potomac, consisting of a slum area, an abandoned brickyard, the old Hoover Airport, and part of the Arlington Experimental Farm.

The original Pentagon pattern was retained for a number of reasons: it already was designed and there was the pressure of time; Army officers liked it because its shape was reminiscent of a 17th-century fortress; and any pattern close to a circular shape would permit the greatest amount of office area within the shortest walking distance. The latter point would cause conflict because Americans were conditioned to think in terms of rectangular buildings.

Roosevelt agreed to the new site, but disliked the architectural design. Why not a large, square, windowless building that could be converted during peacetime into a storage area for archives or supplies? However, Somervell liked the pentagonal concept and, as time was vital, told the contractors to proceed. He did not even bother getting the approval of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission or the Fine Arts Commission, as was required. When the President discovered what was happening, construction already had begun. …

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