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The Pentagon: How History Shaped These 5 Walls

The Pentagon, as it is seen today.

The Pentagon was built to provide more office space.

War seemed likely by late 1940, and the War Department’s workforce had grown rapidly to 24,000 employees working in 23 locations – to include apartment buildings and rented garages – across Washington D.C.

“The matter of office space for the War Department has become one of greatest urgency,” wrote Robert Patterson, Under Secretary of War, on November 29, 1940.


The Urgency to Plan for War

In the aftermath of the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941 – to say nothing of the growing British pressure for the United States to enter the war – President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Brigadier General Brehon B. Somervell decided the War Department needed to consolidate its employees in one building.

The head of the construction branch of the Army’s Quartermasters Corps, Somervell initially envisioned a four-story structure of 4 million square feet of office space for 40,000 employees with parking for 10,000 cars at a cost of $35 million.

On July 17th Somervell met with architect George Bergstrom and contractor John McShain; he gave them until the following Monday morning to come up with a design.


Siting the Design of the Pentagon

The land needed for such a large building did not exist in the District of Columbia, so the planners looked across the Potomac River into Virginia at Arlington Farms, a 67-acre site across the river from the Lincoln Memorial and near Arlington National Cemetery.

Somervell’s needs created challenges for the designers who found that a traditional rectangular or square structure would not fit on the site.

Consequently, they designed an asymmetrical pentagon shaped building that roughly conformed the shape of the land.

The proposal soon came under criticism as some strongly argued the proposed building was too close to the cemetery; some said it would block scenic views from Washington D.C.; and some more said the concrete constructed edifice would be too plain looking.  

These concerns were quickly addressed.


A Presidential Decision

President Roosevelt did not approve of the proposed site either, and he suggested a larger piece of land be utilized at the abandoned Hoover Airport, sometimes referred to as “Hell’s Bottom.”

Not wanting to redesign the edifice, the designers smoothed and straightened the site lines on their drafting paper into a uniform pentagonal shape.

The president liked it and made the decision to commence construction.

The Pentagon
The original and final sites for the Pentagon.

Fast-Tracking a National Priority

On September 11, 1941 – only 56 days after the project was penciled out – ground was broken.

Three months later after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s formal entry into World War II, the project was fast-tracked.

To maintain the breakneck pace, Somervell appointed Army Major General Leslie Groves (who would later head up the Manhattan Project which produced the first atomic bomb) to oversee the round-the-clock operations of the over 15,000 workers.

Their labor ended sixteen months later on January 15, 1943. It resulted in a spartan but functional building characterized by one of the world’s greatest construction feats at a cost of $83 million.


The Pentagon

Three days earlier, Major General Alexander D. Surles, chief of the Army’s Bureau of Public Relations, recommended the structure be called the Pentagon.

Comprised of 6.5 million square feet of space – of which 3.7 million is used for offices – there are presently about 23,000 military and civilian employees working for the Department of Defense.  

Constructed of steel and 450,000 cubic yards of concrete, the structure is five stories high with two additional stories underground.  It consists of five concentric rings with 10 spoke-like corridors connecting the building.

There are 17.5 miles of hallways; however, it is possible to briskly walk between any two points within the Pentagon in between seven to ten minutes.

Inside the Pentagon are 4,200 clocks, 691 drinking fountains, 284 restrooms, 16 parking lots, and six snack bars.

In the center of the building is a five-acre, open area referred to as Ground Zero.


The Phoenix Project and Hell’s Bottom

On the 60th anniversary of the Pentagon’s groundbreaking, American Airline Flight 77 was deliberately flown into the east side; almost 200 individuals lost their lives.

Planners soon initiated the Phoenix Project to repair the damage.

As to the attacks on both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, terrorists around the world soon felt the results of much of the planning that came from inside a five-sided building sitting on land once called “Hell’s Bottom.”


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