Sunday, January 15, 2017

Patriotism and Paranoia Sunday

January 15, 1943 – The Pentagon is dedicated in Arlington, Virginia.

The United States Department of War (the Department of Defense after 1948) had long been headquartered in the Old Exeuctive Office Building east of the White House. During World War I, two 18-wing temporary office buildings ("tempos") were built on the north edge of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The War Department occupied these buildings, as well as more than a dozen others throughout the D.C. area. In 1939, construction started on a new office building in Foggy Bottom. But as war in Europe loomed, the War Department felt it was too small. So the building was assigned to the Department of State.

As war approached in 1940, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson became deeply alarmed at how inefficient the situation was. In May 1941, he told President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the war could actually be lost if something wasn't done. Roosevelt pushed Democrats in Congress to act, and they did: In July congressional hearings, Democrats pushed the War Department for an "overall solution" to the department's space problem.

General Brehon Somervell, head of the War Department's construction office, was told to come up with a plan in five days. Somervell decided to keep costs low by seeking land close to the city but relatively undeveloped. This limited the site search to Arlington County, Virginia. To keep the use of steel low, the building could be no more than four stories tall, which meant it had to sprawl over a large area. This limited the possible sites two just two: the Department of Agriculture's Experimental Farm (now the eastern half of Arlington National Cemetery) and Washington-Hoover Airport (the newly-abandoned city airport just south of the Experimental Farm).

The Experimental Farm was chosed for the site. Since it had a roughly pentagonal shape, the War Department building was planned as an irregular pentagon. Concerned that the new building would obstruct the view of Washington from Arlington Cemetery, President Roosevelt ordered that the building be built on the Washington-Hoover Airport site instead. The building retained its pentagonal layout because a major redesign would have been too costly.

On July 28, 1941, Congress authorized funding for the new building. An additional 287 acres of land (including the notorious Hell's Bottom neighborhood) around Washington-Hoover were acquired to fill out the site. Additional land was created by dredging a lagoon north of the site, and using the dredged material to create the new land. Contracts totaling $31.1 million ($506.4 million in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars) were issued on September 11, and ground broken the same day.
Because the Pentagon was built on an uneven floodplain and newly-created (and unsettled) reclaimed land, its foundations had to be remarkably strong and extensive.. Two retaining walls were built and dredged material used to even out the site. 41,492 pressure-injected concrete footings 165 feet down were surmounted by stainless steel rebar cages. These pilings helped stabilize the ground and kept the building from sinking.

Architectural and structural design work for the Pentagon proceeded simultaneously with construction, which proved immensely costly but dramatically cut down construction time. Initial drawings were ready by early October 1941, and nearly all the design work complete by June 1942. Because racial segregation was the law in Virginia, the Pentagon had to have separate eating and bathroom facilities. Thus, there are dining rooms in the basement and top floors, and twice the number of toilets for a building its size. (President Roosevelt ordered racial segregation in the military ended in June 1941. Roosevelt discovered that it lasted in the Pentagon building, and ordered it ended there in February 1943.)

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Somervell demanded that at least one wing of the Pentagon be available for occupancy by April 1, 1942.

Construction was completed January 15, 1943. It had taken just 16 months, but cost a whopping $83 million (nearly triple the original estimate).
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