“Three things are to be looked to in a building: that it stand on the right spot; that it be securely founded; that it be successfully executed.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
On Thursday, July 17, 1941, Brig. Gen. Brehon Somervell, the commander of the Construction Division of the Army Quartermaster Corps, told 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 that instead of several temporary buildings to house the expanding staff of the War Department, he wanted a permanent one, something he called the “biggest office building in the world.” It would contain 4 million square feet of office space, be no more than four floors high because of steel shortage, hold 40,000 people, have parking space for 10,000 vehicles, have 500,000 square feet of office space ready for occupancy in six months by 10,000 people, and to be entirely finished in 12 months – a job otherwise estimated to take at least four years. And, because no available space in Washington was big enough, Somervell said it would be built across the Potomac River on the site of the old Washington-Hoover Airport. Finally, he wanted the preliminary plans and designs on his desk Monday, July 21.
While architect Bergstrom and his team got organized to create the necessary drawings and schematics, Casey went out to eyeball the site. The more he saw in his walkaround, the more troubled he became. The airport was on low-lying riverbed land that regularly flooded and was little better than a swamp. Somervell’s boss, Assistant Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Eugene Reybold agreed, calling it “hazardous.”
After getting Somervell’s okay to look elsewhere, Casey pulled out a map of the area and began searching. What attracted him was a 67-acre, 60-foot-high plateau about a half-mile upriver from the airport at the northern tip of the Arlington Farms Experimental Station just across the Arlington Ridge Road east of Arlington National Cemetery. He liked what he saw. It was above the flood plain, large enough to accommodate the building, had access to utilities, water supply, and road network – everything the largest office building in the world would need. Best of all, Arlington Farm once again belonged to the War Department. Weeks earlier Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall had requested the land, which years before the War Department had sold to the Agriculture Department. President Roosevelt signed the necessary transfer orders. A down-and-dirty survey confirmed Casey’s assessment. With Reybold also backing the move, Somervell signed off on the new location. Overall, he wanted the project to remain in Virginia. A project of such magnitude was going to need political allies. For him, none were more important than Rep. Clifton Woodrum of Virginia, acting chairman of the Subcommittee on Deficiencies, a subcommittee in the House Committee on Appropriations, and the man who earlier had asked for an “overall solution” to the War Department’s office problem.
Bordered on the north, west, and south by roads and on the east-northeast by a branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a proposed truck route, the location had an asymmetrical pentagon shape, hardly an aesthetic recommendation. Nonetheless, Bergstrom and his architects and draftsmen went to work.
Even before they rolled out their drafting paper, a change order in the design was made – the first of what would be many. Though he still wanted the 4 million square feet of space, Somervell reduced the number of floors from four to three to ensure the profile of the building – in its new location on the northern plateau – would be low enough so as not to obstruct the view between the cemetery and Washington.
Despite the fact that the configuration of the land itself suggested a pentagonal design for the building, that shape did not immediately come to the team’s mind. Casey later said they played around with “different set-ups and layouts” before settling on a pentagonal shape. According to Casey, Bergstrom deserved “the greatest credit” for the pentagonal design that emerged, a statement supported by a 1943 Corps of Engineers memorandum stating the design was “the responsibility and the contribution of Mr. Bergstrom.”
In keeping with the land’s asymmetrical shape, the building’s pentagonal design was irregular, conforming to the three border roads and lopping off a corner of the building’s southeastern corner to complete the five-sided shape.
In this first design draft, the building was composed of two rings, outer and inner, in effect making two buildings. Extending inward from the outer ring were 49 barracks-like wings. The inner ring had 34 wings that pointed to the outer ring. Each wing, 50 feet wide and 160 feet long, was separated from the others by a 30-foot-wide open air “light court.” The ground and third floors had corridors that connected the two rings to each other.
The building’s gross area totaled 5.1 million square feet with 4 million available for office space. Private offices were only for senior officials and commanders, with everyone else working in gigantic open bays. In giving each person 100 square feet of working space, the building hit its target population of 40,000.
On Monday morning, Bergstrom laid on Somervell’s desk the preliminary designs. Bergstrom put the cost estimate at $17.5 million. Somervell, wise to the way of construction costs, immediately doubled it.
With plans in hand, Somervell began the involved process of getting approvals, starting with the War Department. The first person he saw was Army Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Richard C. Moore, responsible for armed forces and supply, who approved, calling the plan “very logical.” This was followed by quick approvals from Marshall and Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson. The potential stumbling block was Stimson, who was on record as being leery of approving construction of another, larger, office building so soon after the New War Department Building had been erected.