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How the Pentagon Got Its Shape

Roosevelt made the first foray at changing the design. His vision was for a solid, square building running a fifth of a mile in each direction; the only windows, if any, would be on the exterior. By his own admission, the idea was "a trial balloon," but the president was excited about the futuristic possibilities.

Somervell and Bergstrom did their best to dampen the president's enthusiasm, and even Clarke, despite his dislike of the five-sided shape, spoke against the idea. "Well, Mr. President . . . somebody might throw a monkey wrench into the air-conditioning, and maybe they wouldn't all get out before they suffocated," Clarke told Roosevelt.

"You know, I never thought of that," Roosevelt mused.

THE PENTAGONAL DESIGN NEXT CAME UNDER ATTACK FROM CLARKE AND THE COMMISSION ON FINE ARTS. Complying with Roosevelt's instructions, architect Edwin Bergstrom appeared before the commission on the morning of Tuesday, September 2, for a special hearing to review plans for the new building.

Gesturing to the drawings, Bergstrom explained the plans. The commission's reception was decidedly cool. "A pentagonal has never worked out well and great confusion is apt to result in the circulation of the building," said commission member William H. Lamb, a partner in the architectural firm that designed the Empire State Building. A rectangular building would be preferable, Lamb said.

His suggestion was endorsed by a most formidable commission member, Paul Philippe Cret, the internationally renowned French-born practitioner of the beaux-arts style and one of America's most distinguished architects. In such a huge building, a pentagonal design would confound visitors, Cret said. "If one gets into the wrong corridor, he is lost," he said. He and Lamb also wanted Bergstrom to rework plans for the facade and "do away with the monotonous appearance."

Bergstrom agreed to make revisions but made it clear he was determined to keep the pentagon. After the War Department architects left the meeting, Cret declared that the fine arts commission should appeal to the president.

Somervell beat the commissioners to the punch. At 12:15, the general, nattily dressed in a bow tie and a seersucker suit, strolled into the Oval Office, accompanied by Bergstrom, who was carrying a large sheaf of blueprints.

Roosevelt, just back from Hyde Park, reviewed the plans carefully. He asked questions and directed a few changes, then approved the design.

Everything was "coming along fine," Somervell told reporters as he left the Oval Office.

At 2:15 p.m., it was the commissioners' turn. Clarke, Cret and Lamb were ushered in to see the president. The mustachioed, dignified old Frenchman presented the case against the pentagonal design, arguing that a rectangle made more sense. Cret also appealed to Roosevelt's sensibilities as commander in chief, suggesting that it would be even better to disperse the War Department in several buildings rather than in one single great mass.

This pentagon-shaped War Department building, Cret said, would make the biggest bombing target in the world.

"You know, gentlemen, I like that pentagon-shaped building," Roosevelt said. "You know why?"

"No," the commissioners replied resignedly.

"I like it because nothing like it has ever been done that way before."

Excerpted from The Pentagon: A History, to be published by Random House. ©2007 by Stephen F. Vogel. Vogel, who writes about the military for The Post, can be reached at


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