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Building the Pentagon.

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. The prime contract was awarded on Aug. 11, 1941, and Congress approved the project two weeks later.

Soon, 13,000 men were working around the clock, constructing the reinforced concrete building with its limestone facade. Each of the five sides was erected separately, clockwise; as a section was completed, employees moved into it. A cost overrun occurred when Somervell changed his mind about the number of floors. The inner and outer rings had five floors and the three intermediate rings originally had four. When the work was 40% completed, he had the builders tear off the roofs of the intermediate rings and add another floor so that the building was uniformly five stories high. The height was limited to five floors so as not to obstruct the view from Washington National Airport, which was being constructed to replace Hoover Airport.

Speed seemed more important than safety. Rumors abounded that a number of men were immured in the foundations. The body of one worker who was overseeing the construction of supporting pillars actually was recovered from its cement tomb at the request of the bereaved family. Some heavy equipment was not retrieved from the basement before it was covered over. The first section opened May 1, 1942, and the entire building was finished in 16 months, rather than the four years normally required to erect a structure of that size. The Army refused to surrender sufficient space, so the Navy remained in D.C. buildings and took over vacated Army offices.

The Pentagon was three times as big as the Empire State Building and covered 35 acres. Its 4,000,000 square feet could accommodate 40,000 workers. Although the interior was a marvel of efficiency, its new design was confusing to Washingtonians. Early in its construction, Pentagonians claimed the designer went mad after its completion; others argued that he was insane before he designed it. The five sides were identical. Each was comprised of five concentric rings separated by a narrow courtyard and was five floors high. Each floor was painted a different color: the first was earthen brown, the second green, and the top three were red, grey, and blue, respectively. Mottled green slates covered the sloped roofs for camouflage purposes.

Eight ramps and five escalators were built for access to the different floors in order to move large numbers of people quickly. Thirteen elevators were hidden from public view and used only to transport freight, top brass, and handicapped people. There were 16.5 miles of corridors, with the main one for the outer Ring E almost one mile in length. Messengers and delivery boys often were seen making their rounds on bicycles or roller skates. It had just one chimney, used for the burning of secret documents. Although the room numbering system sounded complicated, it really was quite simple. Visitors merely had to know the correct floor, ring, and corridor for the rooms they were seeking. Room number 4 A 3 10, for example, would be on the fourth floor, inner Ring A, third corridor, room 10.

Even before it was finished, Washingtonians were repeating the legend of the Western Union delivery boy who got lost for three days and emerged as a lieutenant colonel. Another told of a pregnant woman who rushed up to a guard and told him to get her to a maternity hospital immediately. "Lady," he said, "you should not come into this building in that condition." "I wasn't when I came in, " she snapped back. Actually, by June, 1943, four babies had been born in the Pentagon. It was rumored that Secretary Stimson once could not find his way back to his office and had to rely on a guide for help. Supporters, though, pointed out that, because of the design, no two offices were more than 1,800 feet apart, or about a six-minute walk. Pentagonians, however, called the complex Pantygon (because you walked your pants off), and Washingtonians referred to it as Hellangon, because it seemed so remote from the rest of official Washington.

Soaring costs

To give its many employees rapid access, Somervell developed a unique cloverleaf arrangement with overpasses and underpasses, a system that later would be used extensively for interstate highways in urban areas, to eliminate traffic lights. Contractors moved 5,000,000 cubic yards of dirt to make more than 20 overpasses and underpasses. The removal of earth also resulted in a beautiful lagoon. The 28 miles of highway cost an additional $28,000,000, and were simple to use if a driver followed directions on the signs posted along the way.

All this, plus landscaping and other cost overruns, brought the project's price tag to $83,000,000 (one irate Congressman insisted it totaled $87,000,000). In the middle of World War II, however, frugal Congressmen dared not complain too loudly about military costs for fear of jeopardizing the war effort. According to one observer, the landscaping for the 400-acre site was done by "squads of Negro women, who all wear straw hats, cotton blouses and blue dungaree trousers, giving the countryside something of a plantation aspect." This is a reminder of how southern Washington, D.C., was before wartime events altered the capital so drastically.

People arrived at the Pentagon by taxis and their own automobiles, where they found two parking lots that could accommodate just 8,000 cars. Most, though, came by bus. The multi-lane main concourse could allow 28 buses to unload at one time and, with the ramps and escalators, could clear them in three minutes. Employees worked on staggered schedules to relieve the traffic congestion, and the escalators ran up until 1600 hours (four p.m.), then down.

Washingtonians marveled at the statistics associated with the Pentagon. It was a small city. Three hundred policemen doubled as firefighters. There were 4,000 clocks and 17.1 acres of window glass. Four women were assigned to change the 6,000 light bulbs that burned out daily. It contained 68,000 miles of telephone wires, and the switchboard could accommodate a city of 125,000 people. A pneumatic tube system rapidly transmitted messages around the building. Each of the five radial intersections on each floor contained a beverage bar. At these, the lunch counters, and cafeterias, 7,000 people could eat and drink at the same time. Fifty-five thousand meals were served daily, and a complete repast could be purchased for as little as 38 cents. During good weather, secretaries could eat their lunches in the 3.5-acre center courtyard. There were two hospitals, medical and dental clinics, a drug store, bank, post office (the Arlington address was officially listed as D.C.), barbershops, and shopping malls.

Employees from Washington, D.C., who had to drive or ride a bus across the Potomac to the Pentagon, resented the daily trip and at first hated the building's design. Most of them gradually adjusted their attitudes, however, and, by the end of the war, Pentagonians were proud that they worked in their peculiar building.

The Cold War solved the problem of what to do with the structure following the war. After 1945, the Pentagon took on new meaning for America and its "free world " allies. In 1947, when Congress revamped the military, the new Department of Defense took over the Pentagon. It then became the spiritual home of the atomic bomb, a frighteningly burgeoning bureaucracy, and the beginning of an age of anxiety. It also took on a collective personality of its own. The news media began reporting that "The Pentagon thinks that . . .," or "The Pentagon today stated that . . .," or "Congressman Jones charged the Pentagon with . . . ." It no longer was just a unique building that threatened to herald the architecture of the future, but, rather, had become a symbol of the "brave new world" of American industrial order and might. The U.S. truly had become a super power, and the brains of its military might were housed in a most singular edifice.
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Article Details
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Author:Lee, R. Alton
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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