The Pentagon is the headquarters of the Department of Defense and has long been used as a symbol for United States military interests since its construction began during World War Two.
The Pentagon has a fascinating history, due in no small part to the date of its groundbreaking. According to Defense Department literature, construction workers broke ground for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, six decades prior to the terror attacks on the Pentagon and New York City on September 11, 2001.
Stats from Defense.gov indicate that the Pentagon is considered to be the world’s “largest low-rise office building” with some 6,500,000 square feet of office space and more than 17 miles of hallway space.
The Pentagon is situated on more than a thousand acres of land. Some don’t know that this land was seized from Confederate General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. That land would not be used by the United States government until decades later.
A Brief History Of The Pentagon
As mentioned above, ground was broken at the Pentagon site on September 11, 1941. The construction would last until 1943. The idea behind the construction project was to give a consolidated home to the offices of the United States War Department which had previously been scattered across nearly 20 separate offices in Washington.
The Pentagon was built in Virginia across the Potomac from Washington D.C. Designed by architect George Bergstrom, who was also responsible for designs associated with the Ford Motor Company Factory in Los Angeles, and Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre, also in Los Angeles.
The Pentagon’s construction, happening at a time when war rationing meant an overall drive to conserve materials for the war effort, utilized local resources including nearly seven hundred thousand tons of gravel and sand from the Potomac River to create Pentagon concrete.
Defense Department records show that the effort to build was massive for its era. Roughly 15,000 laborers did 24/7 construction work and some Pentagon offices were already filling up with staffers before the project was even declared completed.
Time And Money
Pentagon construction was complete on Jan. 15, 1943–a year and four months after the massive project got underway. The initial budget for the project was $35 million, but the final price tag to build was more than $60 million in 1943 dollars–around $900 million in 21st century dollars.
Why does the Pentagon have its distinctive shape? Originally planned to be constructed on a site bordered by five roads, the shape was meant as a practical measure to ensure access from any of those roads. But the final decision had an alternate site where the project broke ground–but the five-sided design remained.
President Franklin Roosevelt had unique ideas for this project. Roosevelt thought a completely windowless facility was a great idea (he had air raid preparedness firmly in mind here according to some sources), but engineers talked the President out of the idea.
And those design choices aside, there was a big issue which needed to be addressed to make the construction project work; the construction site is described as “mostly swampland”.
It took some five million cubic yards of soil and more than 40,000 concrete pilings to stabilize the land properly so the Pentagon could be built. And there were other complications–building the facility too tall would interfere with the view of or the view to Arlington National Cemetery. At the end of the day, the Pentagon would be restricted to a total height of about 77 feet.
Sacrificing height meant spreading out. The Pentagon sprawls over some 29 acres to house offices and work centers from approximately 25,000 workers.
Believe it or not, the original concept for the Pentagon included the provision that the entire facility would be repurposed for something else at the end of World War Two.
Military planners originally meant for the facility to be used as a hospital or other “peacetime facility” once war necessities had ended. But thanks to the Cold War, use of the Pentagon became permanent.
The original designs for the facility were unfortunately in keeping with unevolved social mores of the era; the Pentagon was planned as a segregated facility with separate facilities for people of color. Segregation was the sad law of the land in Virginia at this time.
But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had other ideas and used the power of the Executive Order to remove all “whites only” signs from the facility and the Pentagon became the only building of its time in the State of Virginia where segregation laws would never be enforced.
The site of the Pentagon has been a focal point for demonstrations, political actions, and terrorism. Some of the best-known protests at the facility occurred during the Vietnam era – 2,500 attended a Women Strike For Peace demonstration outside then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s office in 1967, the same year as a sit-in protest held at the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
1967 also saw more than 35,000 anti-war protesters march on the Pentagon where they had a confrontation with armed troops–this protest is a source of famous imagery of protesters planting flowers in the gun barrels of troops massed at the event.
In 1972 members of the Weather Underground participated in a bombing in the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. Some sources report the attack was limited to a restroom inside the facility, but in today’s security-conscious society the idea that a bombing inside the facility could even be possible.
September 11, 2001
But none of these incidents compares to the terror attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the Pentagon’s groundbreaking. Five terrorists took control of a commercial airliner (American Airlines Flight 77) in a hijack attempt that resulted in the aircraft being deliberately flown into the Pentagon.
The facility had been under renovation and one section which had been recently completed at the time was largely empty–of the some 4,500 workers would would normally have been in that section of the building, only 800 had moved back into the newly completed offices. The loss of life that could have resulted had that entire section of the building been populated could have been much worse.
The Pentagon would see this damage repaired in a year or so, and an indoor memorial for the victims of the attack were added to the site of impact.
The Pentagon Today
Today, the Pentagon enjoys status as a National Historic Landmark. It is sometimes described in context of an ongoing renovation project and due to the facility’s size, it is not surprising that a perpetual round of upgrades and improvements are required.
The Pentagon still serves as the focal point for Defense Department operations, serving as DoD headquarters for a variety of departments including the various branches of the military: Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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