The creation of the Pentagon in seventeen whirlwind months during World War II is one of the great construction feats in American history, involving a tremendous mobilization of manpower, resources, and minds. In astonishingly short order, Brigadier General Brehon B. Somervell conceived and built an institution that ranks with the White House, the Vatican, and a handful of other structures as symbols recognized around the world. Now veteran military reporter Steve Vogel reveals for the first time the remarkable story of the Pentagon’s construction, from it’s dramatic birth to its rebuilding after the September 11 attack.
At the center of the story is the tempestuous but courtly Somervell–“dynamite in a Tiffany box,” as he was once described. In July 1941, the Army construction chief sprang the idea of building a single, huge headquarters that could house the entire War Department, then scattered in seventeen buildings around Washington. Somervell ordered drawings produced in one weekend and, despite a firestorm of opposition, broke ground two months later, vowing that the building would be finished in little more than a year. Thousands of workers descended on the site, a raffish Virginia neighborhood known as Hell’s Bottom, while an army of draftsmen churned out designs barely one step ahead of their execution. Seven months later the first Pentagon employees skirted seas of mud to move into the building and went to work even as construction roared around them. The colossal Army headquarters helped recast Washington from a sleepy southern town into the bustling center of a reluctant empire.
Vivid portraits are drawn of other key figures in the drama, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who fancied himself an architect; Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, both desperate for a home for the War Department as the country prepared for battle; Colonel Leslie R. Groves, the ruthless force of nature who oversaw the Pentagon’s construction (as well as the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bomb); and John McShain, the charming and dapper builder who used his relationship with FDR to help land himself the contract for the biggest office building in the world.
The Pentagon’s post-World War II history is told through its critical moments, including the troubled birth of the Department of Defense during the Cold War, the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the tumultuous 1967 protest against the Vietnam War. The pivotal attack on September 11 is related with chilling new detail, as is the race to rebuild the damaged Pentagon, a restoration that echoed the spirit of its creation.
This study of a single enigmatic building tells a broader story of modern American history, from the eve of World War II to the new wars of the twenty-first century. Steve Vogel has crafted a dazzling work of military social history that merits comparison with the best works of David Halberstam or David McCullough. Like its namesake, The Pentagon is a true landmark.
Washington Post journalist Vogel provides an incisive history of the Pentagon both as an architectural construct and as an American symbol, though not as an institution. Vogel traces the politics and design considerations involved in planning a new home for the previously scattered War Department (forerunner of today's Department of Defense) in the early 1940s. Wartime conservation subsequently forced builders to use the least amount of steel possible, and much concrete. The "Stripped Classical" building erected in 16 months at a cost of $85 million was made with five sides chiefly because it lay on remnant acres between five appropriately angled roads. At the time, it was a massive undertaking: five concentric rings of offices, 17.5 miles of corridors and a five-acre central courtyard. Vogel demonstrates how planners conceived the structure as fitting into L'Enfant's original plan for Washington, D.C., and goes on to depict it as a national icon. In this vein, Vogel describes the building as a target for protesters during the Vietnam War (with special attention to October 1967's March on the Pentagon, immortalized in Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night), and, of course, the 9/11 attack. Throughout, Vogel artfully weaves architectural and cultural history, thus creating a brilliant and illuminating study of this singular (and, in many ways, sacred) American space. Photos.
What a page turner!
I hardly expected to be reading a story about the Pentagon at 3:00 a.m. on a weeknight, but I couldn’t put it down! This story is one of an enormous undertaking during an exciting moment in history featuring characters that are larger than life. Steve Vogel’s story telling is masterful, creating a compelling story about more than a building. He describes the quintessential American spirit itself, as it drove the completion of this unlikely project through its ability to propel the renovation following the 9/11 attack.