By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
The Pentagon was built in a rush during World War II, and for decades, it seemed as if time had stopped in parts of the building. The asphalt tiles on miles of corridors, the wooden signs on the walls, and the ancient fixtures in the restrooms created an ambiance that transported visitors back to the days when Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall oversaw a global war and the corridors were filled with legions of Army clerks and "government girls."
Almost all of that has changed with the slab-to-ceiling renovation that has been underway since 1994. Section by section, nearly all of the 6.2 million-square-foot building has been gutted, methodically stripped down to concrete floors and columns. The interior has been rebuilt with modern office space, lighting and infrastructure -- even atriums and elevators, revolutionary by Pentagon standards.
But the result, while more comfortable, lacks the military headquarters' distinctive atmosphere, and as the date for the final phase of demolition approaches this fall, pangs of regret over what is being lost have welled up. A proposal has emerged: Why not preserve a small section of old Pentagon office space for historical reasons?
The idea has floated up the chain of command. No final decision has been made, but the proposal has received a favorable reception from Pentagon officials, including Michael Rhodes, the acting director of Administration and Management for the Defense Department, who oversees the building.
"We are excited about potentially preserving a small area of the Pentagon so that occupants and visitors can experience aspects of the building as they existed prior to the renovation," said Albert C. "Clai" Ellett, the acting director for Washington Headquarters Services, the agency responsible for the Pentagon's management.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said: "While everybody enjoys the upgrades of the building, people do reminisce about the old building with fond nostalgia. This is a way for people to remember the way it used to be."
Only one section of the building -- less than 10 percent -- remains in its original state. Other than the formal wooden staircases and certain design features at the building's two ceremonial entrances, nothing else of the interior has been preserved in the refurbishment.
The last untouched portion of the Pentagon is on the southern side of the building, stretching across all five of the building's rings along the east side of Corridor 2. The amount of space within this section to be preserved would be relatively small, officials said.
The Pentagon was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993, and the renovation has preserved the building's exterior, including the limestone facade and the center courtyard. But until now, little has been done to preserve the interior.
Many details have not been established, including the exact location and amount of the space to be preserved. "We are reviewing several locations, and concepts are being developed," Ellett said.
Also unresolved is the question of how the space would be used.
"There's a good deal of discussion as to whether it would simply be space of what a typical office looked like, or to make it more of a living museum piece," Stuart Rochester, chief historian for the Pentagon, said in an interview shortly before his death from melanoma July 29.
Given the historical imperative of preserving a piece of the original Pentagon interior, Rochester called it "a foregone conclusion that it's going to happen," but he predicted it may not be without controversy.
Setting aside the space for a museum would mean that one or more offices displaced by the renovation might not move back into the Pentagon. "Space is at a premium, so there's going to be all sorts of howling," Rochester said.
Another problem is the need to remove the hazardous asbestos used prevalently in construction material throughout the Pentagon, no matter whether a section is being renovated. "Of course there are environmental issues involved," said Nancy Berlage, a historian in the Defense Department's office of history involved with the project.
Meanwhile, the renovation moves inexorably forward. Last month, the Pentagon opened the first half of the redesigned concourse shopping area. When the rest opens this fall, employees will have multiple eating choices in a new 800-seat food court.
It's all a far cry from the standard fare originally offered in Pentagon cafeterias.
"You can even get sushi," Whitman said.