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The Pentagon: Building An Icon

The 680,000 tons of sand and gravel for the concrete were dredged from the Potomac River and delivered directly to the onsite batching plant by barge. Its daily capacity of 3,000 cubic yards of concrete was delivered directly into trucks that mixed the batches as they drove to the site. Ultimately, 435,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured.

Now containing five rings, the walls were concrete, with the outer wall of the outermost ring covered in Indiana limestone. Thanks to the extensive use of reinforced concrete, about 38,000 tons of steel were saved, more than enough to build a battleship. One area where steel was necessary was in the window sashes.

The Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, taken from an airplane in January 2008. Photo by David B. Gleason via Wikimedia Commons

The Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, taken from an airplane in January 2008.
Photo by David B. Gleason via Wikimedia Commons

Of all the countless headaches experienced by management during construction, none was greater than the uproar of what material would frame the building’s 9,000 windows. When the first round of bids awarded the contract to steel sash manufacturers, wood sash companies raised such an uproar that a second round of bidding became necessary. Even when that bid was won by steel sash manufacturers, wood sash manufacturers and their congressional advocates continued protests for weeks.

Problems weren’t confined to materials. This was the era of segregation, and Virginia had on its books Jim Crow separate-but-equal laws. Though they should not have applied to the Pentagon, as it was federal property and subject to Roosevelt’s Executive Order No. 8802 that forbade discrimination, whether deliberately or by accident, separate toilet and dining facilities were incorporated into the design. The result was a doubling of the normal number of toilets and dining rooms.

By the spring of 1942, two of the five wedges had been built and, though conditions were hardly ideal, Somervell’s promise to have functioning office space available was achieved on May 1, when 300 Ordnance Department workers moved into Section A. While not the promised 1,000 workers, it was still an impressive achievement.

Because the Army had dramatically grown far beyond pre-war projections, in July 1942 a fifth floor was added to the design. This meant that the roof installed on the two finished sections had to be ripped up and replaced.

Finally, on Feb. 15, 1943, prime contractor John McShain, Inc., announced that construction of the Pentagon was finished. Instead of 12, it had taken 17 months to build. But during that period dramatic alterations had been made on the fly, with basements expanded, a new floor added, and countless other changes both big and small. It had grown from 5.1 million to 6.24 million gross square feet. Office space had grown from 2.3 million to 3.6 million square feet.

Designed in a race against time and planned for efficiency, not beauty, it was originally derided as ugly in its design and construction stage, but over the years that attitude changed. Army historian Maj. William Frierson noted that the building came to possess a “quiet dignity” that was “Hellenic in its simplicity and harmony; modern in its lack of curves, its rigid formality, and its vastness.”

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...