In hindsight, it seems unlikely the Pentagon would have been built without someone as forceful as Somervell leading the charge. He was ambitious and audacious, to an extent that rubbed some people the wrong way, and once he’d made a determination, he did everything he could to avoid debating it. Within six months of taking charge of the Construction Division, Somervell had overseen the building of 229 troop facilities, and within days of achieving that, he’d talked Stimson and President Franklin Roosevelt out of their plan to build more temporary structures for War Department employees. Instead, Somervell said, the department should erect a single building that would bring department personnel under a single roof.
A Permanent Home
Within days of first mentioning the idea, Somervell had plans sketched out by a designer. In order to accommodate more than 20,000 employees, the building would need to be huge, but it couldn’t be tall. Local building codes, public opinion, and a government warning about possible material shortages – including the steel necessary to frame tall buildings – conspired to keep the new War Department headquarters a low-rise.
There wasn’t room for such a building in the capital. Somervell’s team briefly considered the site of the former Washington-Hoover Airport, across the river in Arlington, Virginia, which was being shut down after the June opening of Washington National Airport. But the location, a low-lying swampy floodplain known as Hell’s Bottom, was considered too unstable, so Somervell proposed a site higher up: a 67-acre parcel of Arlington Farm, the former estate of Gen. Robert E. Lee, on a hill directly across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial and adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. A corner of the rectangular plot was cut off by a road, so Somervell’s architect, George Edwin Bergstrom, optimized the available area by designing a roughly shaped pentagon, three stories tall, that would cover most of it.
Somervell didn’t think three stories would be enough, but he wanted to avoid public criticism, which came anyway, from every angle: The building was too big. It was too ugly. It ruined the sightlines from Arlington Cemetery to the capital. It was a huge, expensive solution to the temporary problem of accommodating a military buildup. So many different objections arose that a unified opposition never materialized, and Congress approved construction of the building in August. Roosevelt and other administration officials were certain such a huge building would have to be converted to another purpose after the war – most likely the storage of records. Somervell obliged, incorporating floors designed to support filing cabinets, loads of up to 150 pounds per square foot.
The plan’s critics wouldn’t be silenced, however, and Roosevelt ordered Somervell back down to Hell’s Bottom, a parcel including the old airport and a seedy assortment of taverns, tarpaper shacks, industrial warehouses, and pawn shops. Reluctantly, Somervell’s crew began preparing the site, though it meant elevating the building’s eastern grade by 18 feet, borrowing fill that had been trucked in to raise the airport above flood stage.
The bigger Hell’s Bottom parcel didn’t require a pentagonal building, but there wasn’t time for substantial revision, and Somervell and Bergstrom were beginning to see the wisdom and efficiency of the shape, which would minimize the time required to walk from one side to another. The design was tweaked to make the pentagon symmetrical. The building would have to sit on tens of thousands of piles, made of concrete rather than steel, driven into the bottomland soil. It would consist of five concentric “rings” of offices, connected by transverse corridors. To save steel and avoid the expense of elevators, wide concrete ramps would allow people to move up and down between levels.