Prior to World War II, the United States Department of War was headquartered in the Greggory Building, a temporary structure erected during World War I along Constitution Avenue on the National Mall.
The War Department, which was a civilian agency created to administer the U.S. Army, was spread out in additional temporary buildings on National Mall, as well as dozens of other buildings in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Then in the late 1930’s a new War Department Building was constructed at 21st and C Streets in Foggy Bottom but, upon completion, the new building did not solve the department’s space problem and ended up being used by the Department of State.
When World War II broke out in Europe, the War Department rapidly expanded in anticipation that the United States would be drawn into the conflict.
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson found the situation unacceptable, with the Munitions Building overcrowded and the War department spread out.
Secretary Stimson told President Franklin D. Roosevelt in May of 1941 that the War Department needed additional space.
On July 17, 1941, a congressional hearing took place, organized by Virginia congressman Clifton Woodrum, regarding proposals for new War Department buildings.
Congressman Woodrum pressed Brigadier General Eugene Reybold, who was representing the War Department at the hearing, for an “overall solution” to the department’s “space problem” rather than building yet more temporary buildings.
General Reybold agreed to report back to the congressman within five days.
Government officials agreed that the War Department building should be constructed across the Potomac River, in Arlington, Virginia.
General Reybold then asked the War Department’s construction chief, General Brehon Somervell, to come up with a plan.
War Department building
Requirements for the new War Department building were that it be no more than four stories tall, and that it use a minimal amount of steel.
The requirements meant that, instead of rising vertically, the building would be sprawling over a large area.
Possible sites for the building included the Department of Agriculture’s Arlington Experimental Farm, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, and the obsolete Washington Hoover Airport site.
The site originally chosen was Arlington Farms which had a roughly pentagonal shape, so the building was planned accordingly as an irregular pentagon by architect George Bergstrom.
Concerned that the new building could obstruct the view of Washington, D.C. from Arlington Cemetery, President Roosevelt ended up selecting the Hoover Airport site instead.
The building, however, retained its pentagonal layout because a major redesign at that stage would have been costly, and President Roosevelt actually liked the pentagon shaped design.
Freed of the constraints of the asymmetric Arlington Farms site, George Bergstrom modified the plan into a regular pentagon.
On July 28, 1941, Congress authorized funding for a new Department of War building in Arlington, which would house the entire department under one roof, and President Roosevelt officially approved of the Hoover Airport site on September 2, 1941.
While the project went through the approval process in late July of 1941, War Department construction chief General Brehon Somervell selected the contractors.
John McShain, Inc. of Philadelphia was selected as general contractor.
McShain had built Washington National Airport in Arlington, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Wise Contracting Company, Inc. and Doyle and Russell were also selected as contractors.
George Bergstrom’s design called for an additional 287 acres in addition to the Hoover Airport site and other government-owned land, which were acquired at a cost of $2.2 million.
The Hell’s Bottom neighborhood, a slum with numerous pawnshops, factories, approximately 150 homes, and other buildings around Columbia Pike, was also cleared to make way for the new War Department building.
Soon, 300 acres of land were transferred to Arlington National Cemetery and to Fort Myer, leaving 280 acres for the War Department building.
General Contractor John McShain finalized contracts totaling $31,100,000 and broke ground for construction on September 11, 1941.
The Pentagon building was constructed with reinforced concrete, using 680,000 tons of sand dredged from the Potomac River.
To minimize steel, concrete ramps were built rather than installing elevators.
Indiana limestone was called for as the building’s façade.
Then December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor forcing America to officially enter World War II.
Pressure to speed up construction intensified after the attack on Pearl Harbor with construction chief General Brehon Somervell demanding that 1,000,000 sq ft of space at the building be available for occupation by April 1, 1942.
Then on April 11, 1942, chief architect Bergstrom resigned due to unrelated charges of improper conduct while he was president of the American Institute of Architects.
He was replaced by David J. Witmer.
It is worth noting that construction of the War Department building occurred during the period of racial segregation in the United States.
This had structural consequences to the design of the Pentagon building.
Under the supervision of colonel Leslie Groves, the decision to have separate eating and lavatory accommodations for whites and blacks was made and carried out.
The dining areas for blacks were put in the basement and on each floor there were double toilet facilities separated by gender and race.
These measures of segregation were said to have been done in compliance with the state of Virginia’s racial laws.
The result was a building with twice the number of toilet facilities needed for a building of its size.
Meanwhile, President Roosevelt had made an order ending such racial discrimination in the U.S. military in June of 1941.
When the President first visited the building before its dedication, he questioned colonel Groves regarding the number of washrooms and ordered him to remove the “Whites Only” signs
(The Pentagon was the only building in Virginia where segregation laws were not enforced until 1965).
The Pentagon was built one wing at a time, and after the first wing was finished, employees started to move into that wing while construction was continuing on the other wings.
Construction of the Pentagon was completed in approximately 16 months at a total cost of $83 million.
The building is 77 feet tall, and each of the five sides of the building is 921 feet long.
The Pentagon was dedicated January 15, 1943.
Now WE know em