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The Pentagon: Building An Icon

Bergstrom had designed it in the style known as “Stripped Classicism,” a sober synthesis of classical and modern style characteristics. Looking at the sketches, Stimson found himself favorably impressed with what he called its “practical and simple lines.” Somervell listed its advantages: bringing everyone under one roof would improve efficiency anywhere from 20 to 40 percent; it would be built in one year, as it was on War Department land; the Army, and not the Public Buildings Administration, would oversee construction. Convinced, Stimson gave his blessing, writing that night in his diary, “Of course it will cost a lot of money but it will solve not only our problem . . . it will solve a lot of other problems.” Stimson’s approval that morning set the stage for the even more important meeting that afternoon on Capitol Hill with Woodrum’s subcommittee.

Somervell cannily first went to Woodrum’s office to give him a private, advance look. The impressed Woodrum was particularly happy to hear that the proposed building would free for other departments and agencies 2.1 million square feet of office space presently occupied by the War Department in Washington.

When he made his presentation before the committee, Somervell remained unfazed when questions of cost and building durability were thrown at him. Near the end, Woodrum asked, “If you had the money, how soon could you get underway on it?” Somervell replied, “We could get underway on it in two weeks.” The subcommittee voted unanimously to approve the project, sending it for a vote by the full Appropriations Committee, at which point it started attracting enemies.

The first serious opponent was Roosevelt’s budget director, Harold Smith, who was suspicious that costs had not been fully examined. But the president brushed aside those concerns and at a July 24 Cabinet meeting gave it his official approval. More serious was the threat posed by Rep. Merlin Hull of Wisconsin, who upon reading HR 5412, the defense supplemental bill, saw a rider attached to it authorizing $35 million for the construction of a War Department Building, a violation of House rules as it had not originated with the Committee of Public Buildings and Grounds.

Hell hath no fury greater than that of a point-of-order pedant seeing a procedural bypass (which is what Woodrum was attempting), and on the House floor, Hull successfully managed to put the entire $8 billion defense supplemental bill on hold. Hull and his supporters attempted three times to block the appropriation. Each time they failed, and the House overwhelmingly voted for the $8 billion bill, with only 11 dissenters. Now it was the Senate’s turn.

The War Department Office building, better known as the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, shown under construction, Jan. 17, 1942. The building was completed in just 17 months. Image from Office of the Secretary of Defense History Office

The War Department Office building, better known as the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, shown under construction, Jan. 17, 1942. The building was completed in just 17 months.
Image from Office of the Secretary of Defense History Office

Though keeping a close eye on the political battle, Somervell remained focused on pushing the project forward. He got Philadelphia-based John McShain, Inc., which had constructed a number of federal buildings and monuments including the Jefferson Memorial, approved as the prime contractor without putting it out for bid. For political reasons, two Virginia contractors, Doyle and Russell and Wise Contracting Company, were added with the understanding they would contribute little more than their name to the project.

But contractor success was counterbalanced by partial victory from his opponents. Roosevelt’s uncle, Frederic Delano, chairman of the influential National Capital Park and Planning Commission, had joined the chorus of those objecting to the size and location of the building. With his voice added, Roosevelt bowed to pressure and cut the size of the building in half. Momentum for getting the now downsized building moved elsewhere was also growing.

The showdown came on Aug. 8, 1941, in a closed-door subcommittee session chaired by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Carter Glass (co-sponsor of the 1933 banking regulation Glass-Steagall Act).

Gilmore Clarke, chairman of the politically influential District of Columbia Commission of Fine Arts who had nominal approval rights over federal building design in the district, was an early opponent of the project, and led the attack to discredit the Arlington Farms site on aesthetic grounds, even though the proposed building was now half the original size. Clarke’s imperious, unbending testimony grated on the senators. When it came time for Somervell, he turned on the charm. Afterward, even Clarke agreed that Somervell had delivered a tour de force performance. On Aug. 11, the subcommittee unanimously approved the project and site, and two days later the full committee approved it, with just five dissenters. But the fight was far from over.

On Aug. 14, 1941, the afternoon session of the Senate opened with the electrifying news of Roosevelt’s secret meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, and the announcement of the Atlantic Charter, a statement of principles between the United States and Great Britain that bound them in the fight against Nazi tyranny.

Against a dramatic backdrop that put the nation further down the path of war, discussion opened on the proposed new War Department office building. The ensuing two-hour debate was described as “a first-class battle.” No stone was left unturned by opponents, with defense equally impassioned. Three times amendments were introduced to scotch the project and three times they were defeated. In the end, Somervell won – not only in getting the Senate to pass the bill, but also in restoring the building to its original size.

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