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A New Home: How the Pentagon Came to Be

On Thursday, July 17, 1941, the day that New York Yankees centerfielder Joe DiMaggio would go 0-3 against the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland, bringing his record-setting 56-game hitting streak to an end, a group of officers from the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps Construction Division, including Lt. Col. Hugh “Pat” Casey, chief of the Design Section, Operations Branch chief Col. Leslie Groves, Engineering Branch chief Col. Edmund Leavy, and chief consulting architect George Bergstrom, were abruptly summoned to the Washington, D.C. office of Brig. Gen. Brehon Somervell.

“The matter of office space for the War Department has become one of greatest urgency… There is no question but that the congestion is materially retarding the National Defense program.”

– Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson, Nov. 29, 1940, confidential memo

When they arrived, Somervell delivered his bombshell. Fixing Casey with his famously piercing gaze, he said, “Pat, we’re going to build a new War Department Building, and we’re not going to build it in Washington. It’s going to be built in Virginia.” It would be the largest office building in the world, he said, four stories high, encompassing 4 million square feet of office space – twice that of the 10-year-old Empire State Building – with no elevators, capable of holding 40,000 people and parking for 10,000 cars. It was to be built in Arlington, Virginia, somewhere in the Arlington Farm Experimental Station between Arlington National Cemetery and the south bank of the Potomac River. The officers’ eyes narrowed as they mentally assessed their responsibilities and work involved in such a gigantic project. Then Somervell delivered the kicker: “We want 500,000 square feet ready in six months, and the whole thing ready in a year.” He wrapped up the meeting with orders to have on his desk first thing Monday morning drawings for the general layout, basic design plans, and architectural perspectives to present to Congress. Bergstrom and his staff immediately went to work drawing up plans while Somervell’s boss, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-4, Brig. Gen. Eugene Reybold and Casey led a team to Arlington Farm to find a suitable location in the 67-acre tract.

Somervell in Cairo 1943

Participants at the Cairo Conference. (First row, left to right) Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. (Back row, left to right) Gen. Shang Chen, Lt. Gen. Lin Wei, Maj. Gen. Brehon Somervell, Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Field Marshal John Dill, Adm. Louis Mountbatten, and Maj. Gen. Carton de Wiart (obscured).

In June 1941, the 500,000-square-foot New War Department Building, as it was officially known, had opened in response to the overdue administrative needs of the rapidly expanding Army. One month later, Secretary of War Henry C. Stimson told President Franklin Roosevelt that the War Department had to go back to Congress and request for funds to build another, bigger office building – now.

Then Somervell delivered the kicker: “We want 500,000 square feet ready in six months, and the whole thing ready in a year.”

Shortly after World War II broke out in Europe in September 1939, the president requested, and Congress authorized, an increase in the Army from 270,000 troops to 1.4 million, a number that would be increased many times over. New bases had to be built to handle the influx of new draftees and called-up National Guardsmen. The Quartermaster Corps, through its Construction Division, was responsible for providing the facilities, and it was in shambles.

Somervell’s predecessor had been the latest in a line of officers used to peacetime parsimony to be subsequently overwhelmed by the enormity of an outpouring of funds and having to turn open tracts of land into working military bases overnight, to say nothing of other building needs. The situation had become such a boondoggle that Congress was threatening to turn the program over to civilian control. The War Department needed a name, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall had one: Lt. Col. Brehon Somervell.

A veteran of World War I whose decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, Somervell had a reputation for taking decisive action and bulldozing his way through bureaucracy in order to quickly get things done – an appropriate and valuable trait given his command. Equally important, he refused to be intimidated by the size and complexity of a project or of powerful people who might stand in his way. Somervell had proved himself when he was made the head of the grossly inefficient Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York City in 1936, the largest WPA organization in the country. This brought him to the attention of Roosevelt’s confidant Harry Hopkins. Somervell’s crowning achievement during his tenure at the New York WPA was the construction of what would become LaGuardia Airport, a 558-acre, $45 million airport built on land reclaimed from the East River that took a little more than two years to build and required a workforce of 23,000. Among the 325,000 people who attended its dedication on Oct. 15, 1939, was Marshall, who had been sworn in as Army chief of staff just a month and a half earlier. In a letter to Somervell, Marshall wrote of the airport, “I was much impressed.” As good as that compliment was, more importantly, Somervell’s success had put his name on the list of officers who Marshall would tap for higher things.

Patterson and Somervell

Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson awards Gen. Brehon B.
Somervell, commander of Army Service Forces, his third Distinguished
Service Medal in October 1945. Library of Congress

That “higher things” moment came for Somervell on Dec. 11, 1940, when he was made commander of the Construction Division, a position his predecessor had held for just nine months. Where others saw the position as a career-killer, he saw it as an opportunity, and he seized it with both hands. He was relentless in his transformation of the division, weeding out incompetents and driving men seven days a week, and regardless of weather. By the spring of 1941, the Construction Division had built 50 major camps and 28 troop reception centers, enough to accommodate a million troops and more to come in both. With the Army housed, Somervell now focused his attention on building a new home for the War Department, the newer, as-yet-unnamed War Department building to be located across the Potomac River on government land in Arlington Farms that would be the largest office building in the world.

To square, so to speak, the competing requirements of time and size, architect Bergstrom settled on the shape of a pentagon with two rings and a large center court.

Bright and early Monday morning, July 21, Somervell had on his desk the preliminary designs. To square, so to speak, the competing requirements of time and size, architect Bergstrom settled on the shape of a pentagon with two rings and a large center court. Connecting the rings were rows of wings, arranged like the teeth of a comb, with light courts between them. The interior of the building consisted of large open bays divided by temporary partitions. Only top officials would have private offices. A basement for paper records storage was 300,000 square feet, and the outdoor parking lots would accommodate 10,000 vehicles. Meanwhile, Somervell’s boss, Reybold, inspected the area and suggested the northern corner of Arlington Farms across the road from Arlington Cemetery as the most suitable location. Casey concurred. Because it abutted a road network, the proposed shape was lopsided, with only four of the five sides being symmetrical.

Somervell took the plans to Marshall, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Richard Moore, a Corps of Engineers officer, and Under Secretary for War Robert Patterson, and got their approval that afternoon. The next stop was a meeting the following day with the all-important House Subcommittee on Appropriations under acting chairman Rep. Clifton Woodrum of Virginia to sell the project. The influential Woodrum was a key player in getting the project authorized, and it was no accident that the plan called for the building to be constructed in Virginia.

When Somervell and Reybold took their places before Woodrum’s subcommittee, their proposal was all but pre-sold but for the details, for it was Woodrum himself who on that fateful day, July 17, had suggested the project whose designs they now held.

Patterson tour

Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson, Maj. Gen. Percy W. Clarkson, CG X Corps, Brig. Gen. P.H. Tansey, ASCOM C, and Lt. Gen. Charles P. Hall, acting CG, U.S. Eighth Army, return from an inspection tour of Eta Jima, Japan.
Library of Congress

Their formal presentation laid bare the War Department’s problem. On July 22, 1941, the War Department in Washington, D.C., and its environs had 24,000 military and civilian employees in 17 buildings. Most of these were scattered throughout the district, with some miles away in Fort Meyer in Arlington, and others in Alexandria, Virginia. Facilities included government offices both permanent, like the recently built New War Department Building, and “temporary,” like the Munitions Building, one of many eye-sore “tempos,” as they were called, constructed during World War I that for one reason or another survived calls for their demolition (and would continue to survive into the Nixon administration, with the last one finally falling beneath the wrecking ball in 1970). Though cramped and, lacking air-conditioning, brutally hot in the summer, at least they had been designed for office use. The greater problem lay with the improvised efforts to accommodate the rapid influx of staff in response to the War Department’s burgeoning needs. Because of an overall lack of office space in Washington, it was forced to rent space in privately owned homes, apartment buildings, garages, and warehouses and then pack staff members in them like sardines in a tin. For example, the Office of Inspector General was in an apartment house and the Adjutant General’s office had just a 5-foot by 9-foot rectangle of space for each worker. Then there was the matter of traffic and parking. In Washington, D.C., traffic congestion was endemic and parking space nonexistent, adding to the inefficiency problems.

Navy and Munitions Buildings

U.S. Navy & Munitions Buildings, Constitution Avenue between 17th and 21st streets, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress

When all the assorted office spaces in and around Washington were combined, it was revealed that the War Department occupied a whopping 2.8 million square feet of space, of which 350,000 square feet went for paper records. Office space shortage was estimated at 734,000 square feet – the figure as it stood in July. By Jan. 1, 1942, staffing levels were expected to increase 25 percent, making the shortage even more acute, with storage space for paper records expected to double by then as well.

The War Department request for this new office building was $35 million, an unprecedented sum. But Somervell and Reybold emphasized that the cost worked out to about $7 per square foot for 5 million square feet of space, with another million dollars for parking.

The War Department request for this new office building was $35 million, an unprecedented sum. But Somervell and Reybold emphasized that the cost worked out to about $7 per square foot for 5 million square feet of space, with another million dollars for parking. Instead of a temporary building, they wanted it to be permanent; that unused space following postwar demobilization could be converted to storing paper records, which all recognized would require a huge amount of space. By bringing the estimated 40,000 employees under one roof, they projected an immediate annual savings of $3 million in present civilian building rentals. With the War Department vacating the Munitions Building, they said the Navy could move in and save the $22 million set aside for its new office construction for use elsewhere. Somervell further estimated that the consolidation would increase efficiency anywhere from 25 to 40 percent, with people spending an average of seven minutes walking from one office to another in the new five-sided structure as opposed to the hours lost in existing car travel alone from one end of Washington to the other and back, to say nothing of the specter of chaos when calling for an emergency meeting of leaders from different departments housed in diverse locations in order to deal with a crisis.

Crowded Conditions2

One of few available houses for rent, Washington, D.C. Once World War II began, there was never enough office space or living accommodations. Library of Congress

And “emergency” – which is to say, war anxiety – was the 500-pound gorilla in the room. The cause of the anxiety was Europe, begun with Hitler’s spectacular conquest of continental western Europe in 1940. Though the island nation of Great Britain gamely held on, no one was placing bets on how long it could hold out. Then in June 1941, Hitler set his sights east, and in Operation Barbarossa his armies attacked the Soviet Union in the largest military invasion in history. By mid-July the Wehrmacht had advanced hundreds of miles into the Soviet Union and captured almost a million troops. Even top military experts were stunned; capitulation of the country was expected at any moment. With Europe’s subordination under Nazi Germany, combined with a diplomatic standoff between Japan and the United States that was rapidly deteriorating, only the most obdurate isolationist believed the nation would be able to stay out of a war that was already greater than that of its predecessor of 1914-1918.

In short, at any moment the president and War and Navy Departments expected an incident to occur that would plunge the nation into war. With bitter memories of the chaotic inadequacies the country experienced when it declared war in 1917 and then began to arm for war, they all wanted to be as prepared as possible for what they knew was inevitable.

By the summer of 1941, the neutral United States was on war footing in all but name. On land, the Army was conducting three large-scale war games incorporating lessons learned from what had recently happened in Europe. They were the Tennessee, Louisiana, and Carolinas maneuvers, with the Louisiana Maneuvers being the largest, employing two full-size armies.

RAF PBY Catalina

As the Pentagon was being designed, the nation was edging toward war, not only selling arms like the Consolidated PBY Catalina to the British, but sending instructor pilots with them.
Photo by K.L. Vantran

Meanwhile, at sea, the United States was the most belligerent neutral nation as could be imagined. On Sept. 5, 1939, in the wake of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Roosevelt ordered a dramatic expansion of the nation’s neutrality zone that eventually came to include Iceland, though it stretched the terms of the 1930s Neutrality Acts passed by the isolationist Congress and signed by him. Within that zone, U.S. Navy ships and aircraft were authorized to provide convoy escort and engage U-boats attacking convoys. Destroyers found themselves in battle with German submarines, with sailors losing their lives in combat.

Also, through its Lend-Lease program, the United States was providing Great Britain with a wide range of war materials, including PBY Catalina patrol and anti-submarine warfare planes. All that was public knowledge.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Reuben James (DD-245) on the Hudson River, New York, on April 29, 1939. Reuben James served as convoy escort in a neutrality zone greatly expanded in the lead-up to the United States' entry into World War II. The ship was sunk by a German torpedo near Iceland in October 1941.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Reuben James (DD-245) on the Hudson River, New York, on April 29, 1939. Reuben James served as convoy escort in a neutrality zone greatly expanded in the lead-up to the United States’ entry into World War II. The ship was sunk by a German torpedo near Iceland in October 1941.

What was top secret was the fact that Roosevelt, knowing it was a violation of those neutrality laws, had also ordered the Navy to send pilots to England to instruct RAF pilots in how to fly American aircraft. He acknowledged that if Congress found out, “I would be impeached.” As it turned out, the risk had a singular reward beyond that of supply and training.

On May 26, 1941, as the War Department was settling into its New War Department Building, a Catalina officially piloted by RAF Pilot Officer Dennis Briggs, but actually (and needless to say, secretly) flown by Navy Ensign Leonard B. “Tuck” Smith sitting in the co-pilot position, located the German battleship Bismarck and radioed its location. The Bismarck was soon sunk; and the Navy awarded Smith the Distinguished Flying Cross (he had to keep secret the reason for the decoration until after America’s entry into the war).

In short, at any moment the president and War and Navy Departments expected an incident to occur that would plunge the nation into war. With bitter memories of the chaotic inadequacies the country experienced when it declared war in 1917 and then began to arm for war, they all wanted to be as prepared as possible for what they knew was inevitable.

The project immediately became a political football that attracted powerful opponents critical of its enormous cost, skeptical of its location beside Arlington National Cemetery and in Virginia, and of its looks.

During World War I the only real contribution made by America was that of men. Arms, aircraft, artillery, even uniforms, were either largely or entirely provided by the Allies. Though much remained to be done, this time enough measures had been taken to ensure a repetition of that embarrassment would not happen. With respect to military housing, out of necessity most of the work to date had been focused on attending to the needs of the War Department’s “body”: its armies. Now it had to focus on the housing needs of its administrative “brain.”

Plans for the Pentagon’s construction met with resistance from several directions. Among those opposed were Frederic A. Delano, chairman of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and Director of the Budget Harold D. Smith.

Plans for the Pentagon’s construction met with resistance from several directions. Among those opposed were Frederic A. Delano, chairman of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and Director of the Budget Harold D. Smith.

After Somervell and Reybold had completed their presentation and left, Woodrum delivered his recommendations to the House Appropriations Committee, which then asked Stimson to notify it of Roosevelt’s position on the subject. On July 24, Stimson sent to Roosevelt a memorandum explaining the urgent need for more office space for the War Department staff and of the proposed building. Roosevelt initialed an “O.K.” on it, and the next day Stimson formally notified Woodrum of FDR’s go-ahead.

The project immediately became a political football that attracted powerful opponents critical of its enormous cost, skeptical of its location beside Arlington National Cemetery and in Virginia, and of its looks. Reaction was swift. Though not a requirement, the District of Columbia Commission of Fine Arts had nominal approval of government construction in the district, and its chairman, Gilmore Clarke, was no friend of Somervell’s, having crossed swords with him years earlier. He went on record in Senate hearings protesting the decision to put the building in Virginia instead of the District of Columbia and deploring the “introduction of 35 acres of ugly flat roofs into the very foreground of the most majestic view of the National Capitol.”

Another influential voice was that of Roosevelt’s uncle, Frederic Delano, chairman of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. His letter of July 31 to the Senate Appropriations Committee also stated that the proposed building would permanently injure the “dignity and character” of the location and questioned the “practicability of the project as a whole.”

Upon his move to the Construction Division, construction officers gathered around him throughout the day to such an extent that Groves later calculated that he was making one multimillion-dollar decision for every hundred feet of corridor walked.

More serious than what was obviously an aesthetic turf war was the threat made by Director of the Budget Harold D. Smith, who presented his objections to the president in person on July 30. Their resistance, and that of others, held up passage of the bill for a month, the crucial battleground being in the Senate; where several amendments – calling for placing the building in the District of Columbia and cutting its size in half – had been attached to the building’s budget bill. During that time, Somervell pulled every political string and called in every political chit he could to keep the project on track. One of the most important allies in the bureaucratic battle was Patterson, an early advocate of a building large enough to consolidate War Department offices. Patterson’s intervention proved critical. On Aug. 14, the Senate passed the bill after defeating the amendments and the final appropriations bill passed by Congress did not specify the size or design of the building.

Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves. As a colonel, Groves was tasked with overseeing construction of the Pentagon.

Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves. As a colonel, Groves was tasked with overseeing construction of the Pentagon. Library of Congress

Somervell may have won the battle, but he knew there were many more to come, both political and practical. Somervell would continue the struggle on the political front that included taking on the president and getting him to reverse an attempted design backtrack. On the ground-breaking side, that battle would be waged by Groves, the man he tapped to get the job done.

Groves had come to the Construction Division from the Corps of Engineers shortly before Somervell’s arrival and was doing his part to turn things around when Somervell got his appointment. A major at the time, he had deftly leveraged his appointment as chief of operations into a promotion to full colonel. Groves was competent, cool, and determined. Upon his move to the Construction Division, construction officers gathered around him throughout the day to such an extent that Groves later calculated that he was making one multimillion-dollar decision for every hundred feet of corridor walked. When Somervell became the division’s new commander, Groves was one of the few holdovers he kept. They had first met in 1932 and formed a friendship that, perhaps because they were so alike in so many ways, cooled into wary respect.

On Aug. 19, with congressional approval in place, Somervell assembled the principals who would be working on the new War Department office building project: John McShain, the prime contractor; Bergstrom, the architect; quartermaster construction officer Capt. Clarence Renshaw; and Groves, to give them their latest marching orders. All would have key roles in the building. But of that select group, only one would be in charge and would be credited for having built it: Col. Leslie Groves.

In the ensuing months, the location would change and the design would be altered repeatedly (substantially increasing construction cost). And while the initial deadline of 500,000 square feet ready for occupancy was met (barely), the ultimate deadline of completion would be pushed back several months. Nevertheless, Groves accomplished his mission: On Feb. 15, 1943, construction was declared finished, and the War Department had a new home.

Three days earlier, Maj. Gen. Alexander D. Surles, chief of the Army’s Bureau of Public Relations, had sent a memorandum to Marshall with a recommendation of a name for the building, one in common use during construction. Marshall and Stimson approved. In a general order issued by Marshall on Feb. 19, 1943, the building was officially named the Pentagon.


This article was originally published in Pentagon: 75 Years – The Building. The People. The Institution. 1943 – 2018 By Faircount, LLC

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...


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