Two Secret Service agents lifted the president from his wheelchair into the back seat. Fala, FDR's dog, hopped into a jump seat. Two men also climbed in, reminders that this was more than a joy ride. The passengers, Gen. Brehon Somervell and Gilmore Clarke, were locked in a battle over a project that would change the face of Washington.
A few weeks earlier, Somervell, the War Department's chief of construction, had revealed that the Army wanted to build the world's largest office building on the banks of the Potomac River in Arlington.
The newspapers were apoplectic, Congress held tumultuous hearings, and Arlington's county fathers were ready to faint. Somervell had stood firm, but now Clarke, chairman of the D.C. Commission on Fine Arts, argued that the Army's preferred site at the foot of Memorial Bridge would destroy the view of the nation's capital, and he had gained the president's ear.
Roosevelt cheerfully told Clarke that he would settle the issue. "We'll go over on the Virginia side and look around and pick a new site," he had said.
Now, as the car passed the site where the Jefferson Memorial was under construction, the forceful Somervell pressed his case. Moving the War Department building from Somervell's site to the swamp favored by Clarke would delay the project for months and add millions to the cost, the general stressed.
It took a presidential edict to quiet Somervell that day, but the general was not remotely distracted from his mission.
More than anyone else, Somervell is responsible for the Pentagon, a building that transformed Washington, fundamentally altering the region's development and laying the foundation for an enormous military establishment. In 18 months, Somervell conceived and built an institution that ranks with the White House, Buckingham Palace, and a handful of others as symbols recognized around the world.
In the summer of 1941, Washington was largely unprepared for war. The conflict in Europe had been raging for nearly two years, and had taken a dramatic turn in June when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. But with Pearl Harbor almost half a year away, the idea that the United States would be swallowed into the war still seemed unreal.
Roosevelt, though, along with Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, saw war as increasingly inevitable. "They recognized they had to have some sort of central headquarters building that could serve the purpose of directing what they saw coming," said Alfred Goldberg, the Defense Department's chief historian and author of a book on the Pentagon's first 50 years.
The War Department's 24,000 employees were spread out in 17 buildings around the area, an arrangement that wasted time and money.
The man Marshall chose to solve the problem was Somervell, a gifted, urbane 49-year-old Army brigadier general with a reputation as a tough and ruthless expediter.
For his rapidly growing department, Marshall envisioned a complex of temporary buildings on a single site. Somervell took the concept a step further and decided on a single building.
The search quickly focused on Arlington. There was too much traffic and not enough room in downtown Washington. Maryland was too far away. But Arlington was just across the river from downtown and had plenty of available land, much of it already owned by the federal government.
On the evening of Thursday, July 17, Somervell called in his top engineers and architects, including Lt. Col. Hugh "Pat" Casey, chief of the design section. "Pat, we're going to build a new War Department Building, and we're not going to build it in Washington," Somervell said. "It's going to be built over in Virginia."
The new headquarters must have room for 40,000 people and 10,000 cars, with 4 million square feet of office space, but it must not be more than four stories high, Somervell ordered. It was to be completed in one year. And, by the way, the general added, have the plans on my desk by 9 a.m. Monday.
"Well, that was a big order, so my staff and I had a very busy weekend trying to visualize the construction of a new office building probably the largest one in the world at that time," Casey told Army historians in 1979.
Somervell had the benefit of a talented staff, including Col. Leslie Groves, who would go on to direct the Manhattan Project, and George Bergstrom, who had designed the Hollywood Bowl.
The first site they considered was along the south bank of the Potomac in Arlington, and included Hoover Airport, Washington's first municipal airport, which had shut down when nearby National Airport opened that June.
But the staff quickly realized that the site's location in the Potomac's flood plain made it a potential construction nightmare. They chose instead a site at a higher elevation known as Arlington Farms, which bordered Arlington National Cemetery at the foot of Memorial Bridge.
Over the weekend, they brainstormed on a design. Despite the height restriction, they needed more than twice the office space of the Empire State Building. They considered a square, a rectangle, even an octagon.
"You have to visualize that here's a city of 40,000 people who don't go by car from house to house, but just by foot within the structure," Casey said. "So we finally came up with what turned out to be a group of concentric and interconnected five-sided structures."
The designers borrowed a shape used by fortresses for centuries a pentagon. The five-sided shape also fit well with the existing road network at Arlington Farms.
The exhausted team presented the plan to Somervell Monday morning. Marshall approved it that afternoon, and three days later, Roosevelt gave a preliminary okay.
Only then, when the Army tried to sneak $35 million for the project into an appropriations bill, did word of the proposed building reach a surprised Washington.
Arlington was a quiet county of 57,000 people suddenly facing an influx of 40,000 more. "It's enough to make one dizzy," said the Arlington County manager, Frank Hanrahan.
The newspapers did not mince words. "The Army's blitzkrieg attack on Congress and Washington, with the largest office building in the world as its immediate objective, has been so sudden and so overwhelming that effective resistance has been scattered," the Washington Star said on Aug. 13. "Nothing quite like it has ever happened in Washington before."
There were angry hearings before Congress. Some were outraged at the casual abandonment of the District. Alternative sites were suggested, including the Soldiers' Home in Northwest Washington. One congressman declared that putting the building in Arlington would leave the District "a ghost town."
Somervell assured congressmen and reporters that after the emergency was over, the War Department would shrink and move back to Washington, and that the new building would then make a "dandy" storage facility.
All the while, Somervell plowed ahead, selecting contractors, fleshing out plans, gaining congressional approval.
But Clarke was not finished. He publicly denounced the Army's plan as "ill-considered" and argued that a building that size would destroy the linear vista formed by the Custis-Lee Mansion, Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial.
That argument struck a chord with Roosevelt, just back from his first meeting with Winston Churchill and now turning his attention to Washington's war preparations.
At a press conference on Aug. 19, Roosevelt spoke with regret of his role in building temporary military buildings in Potomac Park and elsewhere when he was assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I. "It was a crime . . . for which I should be kept out of Heaven," FDR 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."
And so it was that Roosevelt, Fala, Clarke and a gloomy Somervell rode over to Virginia on Aug. 29 to look at real estate.
Clarke's proposed site the one Somervell had first rejected was a mess. Apart from being swampy, it included a tawdry neighborhood of shacks, dumps, railroad yards and pawnshops known as Hell's Bottom. "I think the War Department is worthy of a little better place," Somervell had sniffed to reporters.
But Roosevelt liked it just fine. The car stopped at a point overlooking the site, and FDR pointed to it, Clarke related in his unpublished reminiscences in 1960.
"Gilmore, we're going to put the building over there, aren't we?" the president asked Clarke.
"Yes, Mr. President," Clarke dutifully replied.
"Did you hear that, general?" Roosevelt continued. "We're going to locate the War Department building over there."
Somervell was finally silenced. When reporters asked him about the site change, he snapped, "Why talk to me about it I'm just a bricklayer."
But there would be plenty more battles over the Pentagon, and Somervell would not lose them.
On Sept. 2, Roosevelt declared that the building would be scaled down to half the size envisioned by Somervell for 20,000 workers rather than 40,000 a move applauded by the newspapers and commissions. Somervell agreed, but by October, the general had pushed the number back up to 35,000. He dismissed as "utterly ridiculous" suggestions he had disobeyed the president.
A few days later, a delegation including Clarke went to the White House to make a final plea against the pentagonal design, arguing, among other things, that it made the world's largest bombing target.
Roosevelt listened attentively until they finished. "You know, gentlemen, I like that pentagon-shaped building," FDR said. "You know why? . . . I like it because nothing like it has ever been done that way before."
Construction began Sept. 11, and went into overdrive after Pearl Harbor. An army of 15,000 workers swarmed over the site on some days.
The site grew to include 146 acres from Hoover Airport, 80 acres from an Army depot site and 57 acres from the southern end of Arlington Farms. More than 160 parcels of land, many of them private, were taken to build roads, and despite court battles, many families were evicted from the Columbia Pike area. About half of the 583 acres assembled was later transferred to Fort Myer and Arlington Cemetery.
The land was as bad as Somervell feared 41,192 pilings had to be driven into the ground to keep the building from sinking into the swamp.
But in April 1942, barely nine months after Somervell dreamed up the building, the first employees moved in, and workers continued arriving through much of the year at a rate of nearly 1,000 a week. The building including a fifth floor added to accommodate more workers was completed in January 1943. The cost, including roads, was $83 million.
"It may easily stand out as one of the worst blunders of the war period," the Washington Post editorialized in October 1942. The building by then was officially known as the Pentagon, although many called it "Somervell's Folly."
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