Page 4 of 5   <       >

How the Pentagon Got Its Shape

In a debate on the floor of the Senate on August 14, opponents fought to derail the project. Sen. Robert A. Taft, the die-hard conservative from Ohio and avowed enemy of all things Roosevelt, led the sharpest attack. "To my mind, there is not any evidence that we shall need such a tremendous building, the largest office building that has ever been built in the entire world . . ." he said. Taft offered an amendment to cut the $35 million appropriation in half, but it failed, 29 to 21.

The bill authorizing construction finally passed. The matter seemed settled: The new War Department building would be built right where Somervell wanted it.

Bronzed and refreshed from his two-week adventure at sea, Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived back at the White House on Sunday morning, August 17, in good cheer, but he was quickly brought back to earth by awaiting problems. His secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, was in outright revolt against the War Department project and had written the president "a very vigorous letter . . . begging him not to permit this rape of Washington." A telegram also arrived Sunday from Frederic Delano, traveling out West, telling the president he was "greatly concerned" by what had transpired. In a follow-up letter sent the same day, Delano urged his nephew to ask Congress to reconsider. The newspapers were also pleading with Roosevelt to act. Unhappy that the Senate had ignored his recommendation that the building's size be halved, the president was chagrined that he had agreed to the Arlington Farm site in the first place.

Roosevelt, who prided himself on his aesthetic sense, already felt a lingering guilt for his leading role in a previous desecration of Washington. As assistant secretary of the Navy when America declared war on Germany in 1917, Roosevelt had persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to allow the construction of large temporary buildings on the Mall along Constitution Avenue to house the Navy and Army, then in desperate need of office space. Nearly a quarter-century after they were built, the barracks-like Navy and Munitions buildings were still there.

On the afternoon of August 19, presidential press spokesman Stephen T. Early escorted the press corps into the Oval Office, where the reporters gathered for Roosevelt's first press conference in the White House since his return to Washington. The president reflected on his historic meeting with Churchill and his own efforts to prepare the United States for the Nazi threat. A reporter changed the subject: "Can you say anything about the new War Department building in Arlington?"

The president dropped his bombshell. "My present inclination is not to accept that action by Congress," he announced.

Before the assembled reporters, the president again prostrated himself before the altar of L'Enfant for having brought the "temporary" buildings to the Mall. "And here it is -- under the name of emergency, it is proposed to put up a permanent building, which will deliberately and definitely, for 100 years to come, spoil the plan of the national capital," the president said. ". . . I have had a part in spoiling the national parks and the beautiful waterfront of the District once, and I don't want to do it again."

The following afternoon, reporters were brought into the Oval Office for a second press conference. The "best solution," Roosevelt announced, would be to put the bulk of the building on the quartermaster site, with a small portion jutting onto the adjacent Arlington Farm land.

The bill passed by Congress did not specify where on the Arlington Farm site the new building was to be placed. As long as any part of the project was on Arlington Farm land, the president reasoned, it would technically adhere to the act of Congress. "So that makes it entirely within the bill," the president declared. Inspecting Hell's Bottom several days later with Somervell and Clarke, the president looked over the tawdry neighborhood and pronounced the site "excellent."

The original rationale for Bergstrom's pentagonal design was gone. The building no longer would be constructed on the five-sided Arlington Farm site. Yet the chief architect and his team continued with plans for a pentagon at the new location. There was no time to change them.

Besides, the pentagon design still worked. Like a circle, a pentagon would create shorter walking distances within the building -- 30 to 50 percent less than in a rectangle, architects calculated -- but its lines and walls would be straight and, therefore, much easier to build. The move from the odd-shaped Arlington Farm site freed the architects from the need to make the building asymmetrical. The advantages gained -- a smoother pedestrian flow, better space arrangement, and easier distri-bution of utilities around the building -- "proved startling," the architects concluded.

The symmetrical design also dramatically improved the look of the building. Seen from above, the concentric rings of pentagons, if not beautiful, were at least pleasing to the eye. Something else about a pentagon appealed to Somervell and other Army officers. The five-sided shape was reminiscent of a 17th-century fortress or a Civil War battlement; indeed, the first shot of that war, a mortar shell that burst with a glare at 4:30 in the morning of April 12, 1861, illuminated the dark, five-sided shape of Fort Sumter.

<             4        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company