Third of five articles
For the Washington businessmen who gathered at the Mayflower Hotel on April 10, 1944, the pressing matter at hand was not the war itself, but how to handle the population boom it had created in their city.
The influx of workers to wartime Washington had doubled the number of federal employees in the capital over the previous three years, and it was dawning on some business leaders that the new residents were going to become a permanent fact of life.
Organizers of the meeting at the Mayflower called for a $100 million public and private building program to transform a city cluttered with makeshift housing and office arrangements into a "modern world capital," according to news reports.
"We've all got to go to work," Charles T. Penn, a leader in a group called the Washington Building Congress, told the audience.
Such accounts reflect an aspect of World War II's legacy that is sometimes overlooked. While the purpose of the new National World War II Memorial is to pay tribute to the troops who forged democracy's victory over fascism, it also memorializes a conflict that left indelible marks on the character of the Washington region.
The leap in the city's population foreshadowed the postwar growth of its suburbs; the Pentagon, built hurriedly in an Arlington swamp in the early 1940s, still undergirds the Northern Virginia economy; and through its role as the nerve center of the vast allied forces, the city gained a sense of its global stature that it has never shed.
"Washington up through the 1930s was a provincial city, and World War II cracked open its insularity," said Carl Abbott, a historian and author of "Political Terrain," which traces the city's growth. "As the command post for the world's most far-flung military enterprise, it had emerged, in political terms, as the most important city in the world."
In his book "Washington Goes to War," journalist David Brinkley described the evolution this way: Washington "never did explode. Instead, it began to adjust to a new form of existence: more harried, more crowded, more contentious, faster, lonelier, bigger. And while some of the strains of wartime would subside when the fighting was over, the city would never again live by its old rules."
From 1940 to 1943, the number of federal employees in the city swelled from 134,000 to 281,000, according to the Washington Board of Trade, boosting the region's population to roughly 1.4 million.
The early wave of wartime workers included 20-year-old Irma Lee Wyatt of Paducah, Ky. She'd taken the civil service exam in her home town, and by November of 1940 was packing her bags for a train to Union Station. She was joining a human stampede, one of tens of thousands of "government girls" who were needed to staff a growing federal bureaucracy as the country girded for war.
"They offered me a job before they even graded my exam," said the former Irma Wyatt, now Irma Lee Westrell, a retired management analyst in Bethesda. "At that time, a warm body who could type was a very valuable asset."
The flood of clerical workers was severe enough to set off a typewriter shortage, one of many that arose in the growing city. As often happened, there was a call for donations. "An idle typewriter is a help to Hitler," one radio jingle warned.
The city was cramped, the streetcars full. "Today there is only about one civilian employee in The Washington Area for each government employee," the Board of Trade said in a 1945 pamphlet. "This explains why you must wait in line at the theatre and the restaurant, why your laundry is late and it takes six weeks to have your radio repaired."
The newcomers needed housing, and quickly. Rents skyrocketed in the District, and thousands of residents rented out rooms in their homes, partly out of patriotism and partly for the extra income. People doubled or tripled up, sometimes sharing the same bed if they worked different shifts.
"Newcomers Discover Private Baths Went Out With Hitler," a Washington Post headline reported.
Ruth Reiter, then a junior at Theodore Roosevelt High School, was in a family of five living in a three-bedroom rowhouse near Seventh Place and Gallatin Street NW. With the invasion of "government girls," she recalled, the family decided to make room for four more people, renting out two of the bedrooms. They made extra sleeping places out of a hallway and converted porch.
"Somehow we managed," said Reiter, now Ruth Reiter Laubgross of Silver Spring.
But not without some frustration. The nine residents shared one bathroom, an inconvenience that inspired her at the time to write verse that began: "The guy who invented the bathroom ought to be shot; his idea ain't so hot."
Dozens of temporary office buildings, or "tempos," were strewn across the Mall, cluttering up the Reflecting Pool area, the Washington Monument grounds and Constitution Avenue.
As haphazard and provisional as the decisions made then seemed, several would have lasting effects.
The crowding led planners to send ever-larger federal agencies outside the city. As Brinkley notes, the Securities and Exchange Commission moved to Philadelphia and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to Richmond. That set a precedent for the decentralization of federal government offices, a trend that continued after the war.
The planning decision with the greatest impact, however, was the siting of the Pentagon.
Even before the war, the rapid buildup of U.S. forces demanded an enormous military complex. But there was simply not enough open land in the District to accommodate such a large project. Although some questioned the wisdom of creating such a large target -- or wondered what could be done with such a building after the war -- the planners pushed ahead.
The first proposed site was considered a horror by many. It was on land slated for the expansion of Arlington National Cemetery and, according to the Commission of Fine Arts, visitors to the Lincoln Memorial would have seen its 35 acres of roofs.
"We owe it to future generations of Americans not to destroy the beauty of the greatest capital city in the world by hurried, ill-considered schemes for the physical expansion of government departments," the commission wrote in a memo to reporters dated Aug. 1, 1941.
In a reflection of how easy it was to gain access to the White House, commission members arranged a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and told him that they wanted a different site and preferred a rectangular building. They won on the site, but not on the shape.
"Suggestion that a rectangular scheme be adopted was not favored by the President, who said a pentagonal building would be something different," according to the commission's minutes of Sept. 2, 1941.
John T. "Til" Hazel, who was then a youth and grew up to become one of Northern Virginia's most prominent developers, credits construction of the Pentagon with creating economic spinoffs across several generations -- from the housing developments in Fairlington and Shirlington, built almost immediately, to the growth of defense contractors in Northern Virginia several decades later.
The impact "went way beyond putting an enormous office building in a swamp," Hazel said.
The federal bureaucracy shrank some after the war, with the number of federal civilian workers in the Washington area dropping to about 205,000 in 1947. But after experiencing the excitement of wartime Washington, few newcomers wanted to leave town. The Board of Trade reported in 1945 that a poll showed about half the people who had flocked to the region during the war would stay, and about 40 percent planned to buy cars in the next two years.
Soon enough, those who left the federal workforce would find work in the private sector, and the great immigration into Washington would spill out into its suburbs.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: The fight that African American veterans waged on two fronts.