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The Pentagon: Building An Icon

Though the bill had passed, the president had yet to sign it into law. Upon his return from Canada, the president found himself besieged by a clamoring press, his secretary of the interior, “Uncle Fred” Delano, Clarke, and others beseeching him to stop the project. Of all their arguments, the one that had the most impact was that of aesthetics. All claimed the building was ugly as sin and would desecrate the Washington landscape. It was an argument that hit home. Roosevelt fancied himself an amateur architect with a fine sense of the aesthetic.

In 1917, when he was assistant secretary of the navy, he had been responsible for getting constructed on the Mall along Constitution Avenue temporary office buildings for the War and Navy departments, which he deliberately had designed “of such superlative ugliness that their replacement” would have been insisted upon the war’s completion. Yet in 1941, there they still were, a blot on the Washington landscape. Roosevelt could not permit a second architectural affront to the eyes built with his name attached to it.

In an Aug. 19 meeting with Smith on the subject of the building’s cost, Roosevelt got so upset he threatened to throw out the entire $8 billion appropriation. Smith advised an alternative. Later that day, as workers began excavation, Roosevelt held a press conference to announce that his “present inclination is not to accept” Congress’ decision regarding the building. Though he couldn’t cancel Congress’ funding, he was going to recommend other sites, and other designs, and was looking forward to his scheduled meeting the next day with Somervell to discuss them.

The news was a thunderbolt, and Somervell went into overdrive. To nix this presidential monkey wrench, he enlisted the aid of the one person who could save the project: Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, the man regarded as Washington’s preeminent fixer. On Aug. 20, Somervell and McCloy walked into the meeting with the president – and hours later walked out with the blueprints approved with no changes, leaving opponents shocked.

A U.S. Geological Survey topographical map of the area around the Pentagon in Virginia, soon after the road network was built. USGS photo via Wikimedia Commons

A U.S. Geological Survey topographical map of the area around the Pentagon in Virginia, soon after the road network was built.
USGS photo via Wikimedia Commons

In that meeting, when he saw arguments leaving the president unimpressed, McCloy played his extortion card: Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl. A Harvard classmate of Roosevelt’s, the former Hitler crony had fallen out of favor and, fearing for his life, fled to England, where he was imprisoned. Roosevelt, thinking his former classmate might have useful intelligence, arranged to have him brought to America. Hanfstaengl turned out to be a buffoon, and the embarrassed Roosevelt was anxious to quietly unload the ex-Nazi. McCloy promised that if Roosevelt approved, unchanged, the blueprints on his desk, he would discretely shunt Hanfstaengl to a remote Army base and keep him under wraps. The President signed off. The following week, when Roosevelt saw McCloy at a Cabinet meeting, he growled, “You blackmailer!”

It was perhaps with the memory of being so rarely outmaneuvered in mind that Roosevelt decided to personally inspect the recommended sites. With Somervell and Clarke in tow, they reviewed the entire area from Arlington Farms to the airport. One of the sites was just north of Hell’s Bottom and west of the airport slated for a quartermaster depot. Looking at it, the president said, “We’re going to locate the War Department building over there.”

The War Department went to work acquiring additional land. Of the 583 acres originally needed, the government owned 296. Condemnation proceedings of 150 nearby houses and purchasing of other plots netted the remainder.

The two men tapped to be project managers, and thus the individuals responsible for day-to-day operations, were McShain’s J. Paul Hauk and Army Capt. (later Colonel) Clarence Renshaw. To oversee the rapidly growing drafting force, architect Bergstrom tapped his chief assistant, David J. Witmer.

Witmer’s force was truly at the tip of the spear on the project, for without designs from them, nothing could be built – supposedly. In addition to designing the building itself, Witmer’s work also “entailed planning the approaches to the building and the parking fields and the road system to give access to the building. It involved a sanitary sewage system and a disposal plant, a heating and refrigeration plant, an electrical power station, the relocation of a railroad, and the redesign of the topography of some 400 acres and the landscaping of this whole area.”

Witmer’s force grew so large that it had to be located in the airport’s abandoned 23,000-square-foot Eastern Airlines hangar. The number of major architectural drawings eventually totaled 3,100. Blueprint presses ran 24 hours a day, cranking out an average of 15,000 yards of drawings per week. Even that prodigious output fell behind the voracious needs of fast-track construction. Architect Luther Leisenring ruefully referred to his design group as the “historical records” section because it was so often behind actual construction. Years later, renovators would discover whole sections of the Pentagon for which no plans existed.

Groundbreaking began Sept. 11, 1941, and initially, despite some 4,000 men working around the clock, progress was slow, a rate calculated to be 1 percent a month, meaning it would take eight years to complete it. Everything changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. A sense of urgency seized everyone, and the pace of construction accelerated.

Loose soil and the great depth to bedrock necessitated the use of cast-in-place pile footings. Eventually 41,492 piles were sunk. Length ranged from 27 feet to 45 feet with an aggregate total of more than 200 miles. Floors and walls were reinforced concrete slab-and-beam, with floors typically 5 ½ inches thick and capable of bearing 150 pounds per square foot. Story heights varied from 11 feet, 4 ½ inches to 21 feet, 1 ½ inches, with an overall height of 71 feet, 3 ½ inches.

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