How the Pentagon Got Its Shape
The country was about to take the plunge into World War II, and the race was on to build the biggest office building on the planet

By Steve Vogel
Sunday, May 27, 2007

ON A WARM AND RAINY THURSDAY EVENING IN JULY 1941, inside a War Department office in Washington, a small group of Army officers hastily assembled for a meeting and listened in disbelief to the secret plan outlined by their commander.

The general spoke in the velvety Southern accent of his native Arkansas. He was not in uniform -- Army policy kept officers in civilian clothes so as to disguise from Congress the burgeoning military population in Washington -- but he cut an immaculate figure, with his trim build, combed-back, graying hair and neatly groomed mustache. Over the past eight months, the officers of the Army's Construction Division had grown accustomed to bold and quick action from their chief. At age 49, Brig. Gen. Brehon Burke Somer-vell had earned a reputation as a smooth but ruthless operator. "Dynamite in a Tiffany box" was how an associate later described him. Now Somervell turned his eyes -- "the keenest, shrewdest, most piercing eyes one is likely to meet," in the words of one observer -- toward his chief of design, Lt. Col. Hugh "Pat" J. Casey.

The War Department needed a new headquarters, Somervell said. The building he wanted to create was too big to fit in Washington and would have to go across the Potomac River in Arlington. It would be far larger than all the great structures of the city, including the U.S. Capitol. Somervell wanted a headquarters big enough to hold 40,000 people, with parking for 10,000 cars. It would contain 4 million square feet of office space -- almost twice as much as the Empire State Building. Yet it must be no more than four stories high -- a tall building would obstruct views of Washington and require too much steel, urgently needed for battleships and weapons.

The War Department would occupy the new headquarters within half a year, Somervell instructed. "We want 500,000 square feet ready in six months, and the whole thing ready in a year," the general said. Somervell ended the meeting with orders to have the basic design plans for the building by Monday morning.

Washington was consumed by war anxiety. Three weeks earlier, Adolf Hitler, already in control of much of Europe, had launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. President Franklin D. Roose-velt, alarmed by Nazi gains, had declared a national emergency on May 27. The War Department in Washington was growing at an explosive rate, its 24,000 workers spread in 17 buildings, including apartment buildings, private homes and several rented garages. Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, needed a quick solution and turned to Somervell to construct temporary buildings for the headquarters. At a congressional hearing July 17, Rep. Clifton A. Woodrum, a powerful Virginia congressman, signaled interest in finding an "overall solution" to the War Department's problem. Somervell took that as a signal for a permanent fix, and the Pentagon, as it would become known, was launched that evening.

The first problem was where to put it -- "incidentally, the largest office building in the world," Casey later noted dryly. Energetic and experienced, Casey was one of the Army's most brilliant engineers, and he quickly saw big problems with the location Somervell had chosen. Washington-Hoover Airport, at the foot of the 14th Street Bridge in Arlington, had just been replaced with a modern airfield, National Airport, about a mile downriver. Somervell -- eager to win the Virginian's blessing for the project -- had seized upon the old airport site, but the low-lying land, which was subject to flooding, worried Casey.

When Casey asked Somervell whether other sites near the airport might be used, the general did not rule it out. Scanning a map, Casey's practiced eye quickly zeroed in on a 67-acre tract about a half-mile upriver from Washington-Hoover. It was Arlington Farm, just east of Arlington National Cemetery. Like the adjacent cemetery, the land had been part of the grand estate of Robert E. Lee that had been confiscated by Union troops in the spring of 1861 for the defense of Washington. In 1900, Congress transferred 400 acres of the Arlington estate to the Department of Agriculture to use as an experimental farm. In September 1940, Roosevelt approved the return of Arlington Farm to the War Department for use by infantry and cavalry troops at neighboring Fort Myer. Perched on a hill above the Potomac, just below the Lee mansion and overlooking Memorial Bridge, Arlington Farm was one of the most prominent sites in the Washington area.

Late on Friday afternoon, July 18, George Edwin Bergstrom got to work. A formal man with a brusque manner, his dark hair whitening at the temples, Bergstrom was an accomplished and experienced architect, now in charge of the largest project of his long career. He gathered with his assistants at the division headquarters.

Bergstrom led the deliberations. The restrictions were confounding, given the space they needed. The easiest solution, constructing a tall building, was out. They would have to spread out horizontally. But how? A square building that size -- with the enormous interior distances to be covered -- was too unwieldy, as was a rectangle. The Arlington Farm tract had a peculiar asymmetrical pentagon shape bound on five sides by roads or other divisions. Finally, guided by the odd shape of the plot, they designed an irregular pentagon. A sketch by Socrates Thomas Stathes, a young War Department draftsman, showed a square with a corner cut off, more or less matching the tract's shape. It was really two buildings, a five-sided ring surrounding a smaller one of the same shape.

All through the weekend, the architects refined the design. The interior of the outer ring was lined with 49 barracks-like wings, sticking in like the teeth of a comb. The smaller ring had 34 exterior wings, all pointing toward the outer ring. The wings were 50 feet wide and 160 feet long, separated from each other by 30-foot-wide open-air "light courts." Corridors connected the two rings on the ground and third floors. Only the most senior officials would have private offices. Allowing 100 square feet per worker, the building could hold 40,000 employees.

There were many problems with the irregular design. The pattern was awkward, and the routes between wings of the two buildings were circuitous. Lacking symmetry, with rows of wings sticking out, the building was frankly quite ugly. Yet, given the site, the pentagonal design had one overriding virtue, Stathes remembered more than 60 years later: "It fit."

The whole idea seemed nonsensical to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The War Department had just opened a new building the previous month in Foggy Bottom, but it had quickly proven inadequate and too small. How could the War Department propose to build a new headquarters so soon?

At age 73, the secretary of war was the elder statesman of Roosevelt's Cabinet, and was known for his dignity, wisdom and Yankee reserve. Stimson was, in the words of an officer on the War Department staff, "like the Rock of Ages." But he also was imbued with a deep streak of Old Testament temper. Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson had telephoned Stimson early the morning of Tuesday, July 22, to inform him about the building Somervell had dreamed up. Patterson, who along with Marshall had given Somervell his approval the day before, arrived at the secretary's headquarters in the Munitions Building, accompanied by Somervell, Brig. Gen. Eugene Reybold and Bergstrom. As they presented their case, the dubious Stimson found himself slowly drawn to the logic. The secretary examined the plans for the building, which struck him as being "on practical and simple lines." How long would it take to finish? Stimson asked. One year, Somervell promised. The efficiency of the War Department would improve 25 to 40 percent by having everyone under one roof, Stimson was told.

Finally, the secretary conferred his blessing. Sound it out with the House Appropriations Committee, and see what they think, Stimson told his visitors.

At a hearing that afternoon before Woodrum's subcommittee, the congressman invited Somervell to speak. Exuding confidence, Somervell presented his plan. The building would now be three stories high, instead of four, to better harmonize with its surroundings by Memorial Bridge. The cost would be $35 million, and that covered everything except parking lots for 10,000 cars.

"This thing would not come to pieces very easily, would it?" asked Rep. John Taber, a New York Republican.

"It certainly should not," Somervell assured him. "It should not ever come to pieces."

Somervell promised to begin construction in two weeks and finish in a year. As for the huge size, it was no time for restraint, the general told the congressmen. Somervell had sold them; the subcommittee unanimously approved funding for the new building, sending the recommendation to the full committee.

Stimson decided it was time to tell the president what was afoot. On Thursday, July 24, he told the president's military aide, Maj. Gen. Edwin "Pa" M. Watson, that he wanted to speak with Roosevelt after the afternoon Cabinet meeting about a new War Department headquarters in Arlington. "It has now reached the stage where the Appropriations Committee has heard of it, and Stimson wants you to know that he is not [the] author, but that the plan has a lot of merit," Watson reported to the president.

Somervell's proposal was reaching the president at an opportune time, as Roosevelt had concluded that the United States probably could not avoid war with Nazi Germany. Earlier that month, the president had agreed to take over the defense of Iceland from Britain. When the proposal was raised during the Cabinet meeting July 24, Roosevelt breezily approved the building. In exactly one week, Somervell had proposed constructing a building of unprecedented size and scale, produced preliminary plans, won the strong support of the War Department leadership, sold it to key congressional leaders, and received a green light from the president of the United States. Nothing, it seemed, could stop him.

IN JULY 1941, PIERRE L'ENFANT WAS SURELY ROLLING OVER IN HIS GRAVE. Gilmore D. Clarke, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, was certain of that. L'Enfant, the designer of Washington, was buried in a majestic site at Arlington National Cemetery overlooking the Potomac. It suddenly seemed that L'Enfant's view would be destroyed by the enormous new War Department headquarters Somervell was planning for just a few hundred yards below the major's tomb. Clarke was dumbfounded. "It is proposed to place this 'city' at the very portals of the Arlington National Cemetery, thus resulting in the introduction of 35 acres of ugly, flat roofs into the very foreground of the most majestic view of the National Capital that obtains . . . from a point near the Tomb of Major L'Enfant, the architect of Washington," he wrote soon after learning of the plan.

The Commission of Fine Arts was the keeper of L'Enfant's flame. Created by Congress in 1910, the commission carried no legal authority to block projects, but Congress generally followed the recommendations of the distinguished panel of architects, sculptors and landscape architects.

Clarke, a New York native, had a reputation as one of the nation's finest landscape architects and had helped design some of the country's first parkways. He was not a building architect, but that did not stop him from passing judgment on those who were. Clarke was accustomed to getting respect. But Somervell had not bothered to notify the commission about the massive new War Department building. When Clarke finally got word of what was afoot, the project had already been approved by the House of Representatives.

Clarke was livid. "It is inconceivable that this outrage could be perpetrated in this period of the history of the development of this City, a city held in the highest esteem by every citizen who visits it," he wrote in a letter to the Senate.

Somervell had also ignored the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, assuring Congress that there was no need to consult the commission about the project. Not everyone agreed, including the planning commission chairman, Frederic A. Delano, or, as President Roosevelt called him, "Uncle Fred." Delano, younger brother of Roosevelt's mother, Sara, was a pioneer in the field of city planning and was a leading force in resurrecting L'Enfant's plan and clearing out the Mall. Delano pushed Congress to bring order to the capital's development by creating the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and, Somer-vell's assurances aside, the law creating the commission clearly gave it oversight over the proposed building in Arlington.

Delano had many concerns about the building, particularly potential transportation problems. At 3 p.m. on Wednesday, July 30, Delano walked into the Oval Office for a meeting with his nephew. He was accompanied by Harold D. Smith, director of the president's budget office. With calm gray eyes behind his rimless spectacles, Smith had the look and sensibilities of a Midwestern justice of the peace. His opinions were held in high regard by Roosevelt. The visitors had a very direct message: "It was a great pity to construct this building," the president was told.

Roosevelt had returned the previous day from a five-day visit to Hyde Park, where he had decamped after approving the new building at the Cabinet meeting July 24. Now, faced with his uncle's protests, the president admitted that perhaps he had been a bit hasty. Smith's concerns about the building were not aesthetic. He just could not understand why a huge, permanent building was needed when the growth of the War Department was supposed to be a temporary response to the emergency.

Delano and Smith told the president that moving 40,000 people back and forth across the Potomac River between Washington and Virginia every day would create "terrific" traffic problems and overwhelm the capacity of the bridges. By the end of the meeting, the president had decided that Somervell's building would be cut back considerably in size.

ON AUGUST 3, AT 10:40 ON A HOT AND HUMID SUNDAY MORNING, the U.S. flag flying over the White House came down from its staff, signaling the president's departure. Roosevelt was escaping a Washington so oppressive that "the heat was melting the tar on Massachusetts Avenue," one press account said. A special train waited at Union Station to take the president to New England for what was supposed to be a relaxing 10-day fishing cruise.

Before leaving town, Roosevelt had taken care of a pressing matter.

After huddling with Harold Smith at noon on Friday, Roosevelt signed a letter to Colorado Sen. Alva B. Adams, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that was to consider the new War Department building. "When this project was first brought to my attention, I agreed that it should be explored," Roosevelt's letter read. "Since then I have had an opportunity to look into the matter personally and have some reservations which I would like to impart to your committee."

The letter, drafted by Smith and using language very similar to that sent by Delano to the Senate the day before, expressed concern about whether the site's transportation network could accommodate such a large building with so many employees. Roosevelt urged the Senate to approve "a smaller building" limited to 20,000 employees. More space could be added later if needed, he said.

With all final business attended to, Roosevelt appeared not to have a care in the world as he headed out of town, boasting of the number of fish he expected to catch. But the trip was a good deal more than a vacation. The president's yacht was scheduled for a surreptitious night rendezvous off Martha's Vineyard with the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, flagship of the Atlantic Fleet. The Augusta, in turn, escorted by another heavy cruiser and five destroyers, would carry Roosevelt to waters off Newfoundland for a secret meeting -- his first as president -- with Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain.

Almost everyone back in Washington, even senior government officials, knew nothing about the president's mission. Congress remained in session, and the debate over the new War Department building erupted into a full-fledged controversy. Somervell confidently moved forward to construct the building on his own terms, making no adjustments to shrink it. Yet there was no denying that Somervell had suffered quite a reversal.

A consensus was settling in some quarters that the new War Department simply could not be built at the foot of Arlington Cemetery, desecrating the view from L'Enfant's tomb. Clarke, the leading opponent, endorsed a proposal to use another plot of land, this one immediately south of the Arlington experimental farm and adjacent to Washington-Hoover Airport. The Army had just broken ground for a quartermaster depot on the site.

There would be no aesthetic concerns about building on this low-lying, ignoble tract of land. But Somervell refused to bend, heaping scorn on the quartermaster depot site, set in a picaresque neighborhood known as Hell's Bottom: "The Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission thinks it is all right to put the War Department down among a lot of shanties, brickyards, dumps, factories and things of that kind." The committee endorsed Somervell's favored site.

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.

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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