The U.S. Army grew from a force of approximately 190,000 men in the fall of 1939 to more than 1.4 million by the summer of 1941. Responding to international crisis and the outbreak of war in Europe, the War Department was growing exponentially to keep up with increasing responsibilities. There would be a critical need for more space for war planning if the U.S. did indeed enter the war.
Brigadier General Brehon Burke Somervell was chief of construction for the War Department in 1941. He proposed that a single building should house the entire War Department, uniting all the military decision-makers under one roof. Somervell's personal determination, his access to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his highly competent engineers and architects, who developed the original Pentagon plans in one harried weekend, all contributed to the ultimate success of the project that some referred to as "Somervell's folly."
When Somervell took his plan to Congress for the necessary appropriations, many objected to the estimated cost of $35 million. Others objected to locating the building outside of Washington, D.C., and some believed the building would be useless once the current war crisis passed. Even Roosevelt thought the Pentagon would only temporarily house the War Department and would later be used mainly as a storage facility. Some in Congress observed that construction of such a massive building would use too many scarce materials, especially steel. Engineers replaced steel frames with reinforced concrete made from sand and gravel dredged from the bottom of the nearby Potomac River. They saved steel by constructing ramps instead of elevators from level to level within the building. Constant design changes and use of substitute materials such as fiber and wood saved large quantities of other metals during construction.
Construction got off to a slow start but speeded up considerably after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor created a new urgency to occupy the building. Somervell brought in Colonel Leslie R. Groves, who would later head the manhattan Project, to oversee construction. Two of the five building sections were completed by the following spring, and the first War Department employees, 300 Ordnance Department workers, moved into the first section at the end of April 1942.
In 1989, the Pentagon was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Renovation and restoration, partly because of age and partly because of the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001, continues on the 60-year old building, still a symbol of U.S. military power. Molly M. Wood
Goldburg, Alfred. The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years. Washington, DC: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1992.; Gurney, Gene. The Pentagon. New York: Crown Publishers, 1964.
Molly M. Wood