Editorial Note on Origins of Pentagon Building

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Editorial Note on Origins of Pentagon Building

June-September 1941
Mobilization caused the War Department’s Washington, D.C., work force—civilian and military—to expand rapidly to over 20,000 persons. In his annual report Secretary Stimson noted that at the end of June 1941 the army’s efficiency “was impaired to a material degree by the fact that the activities of the Department were carried on in 23 separate buildings.” (War Department, Report of the Secretary of War to the President, 1941 [Washington: GPO, 1941], p. 11.) Completion of the new War Department building (which became the State Department building in 1947) reduced the scattering to seventeen buildings. Congress authorized and provided funds to construct temporary office buildings, but stipulated that they be built within the District of Columbia. (Stimson Memorandum for the President, April 10, 1941, NA/RG 107 [White House Correspondence, WD 029.21 (4-9-41)].)

By the late spring of 1941 the War Department was seeking to consolidate its offices and personnel into a few large, temporary buildings, but it considered the possible sites in the District inadequate. On June 11 Marshall testified before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to request that the construction limitations be removed so that the Virginia experimental farm site could be used. “The Arlington farms is across the Memorial Bridge. There is no stop light at all. It is property we already own. We can commence building on this site as soon as legislation authorizing construction outside of the District is enacted. It is about 4 minutes from the War Department. To be able to build our temporary office buildings on the Arlington farms site means everything to us; we can do business if our buildings are placed there.” (House Appropriations Committee, Second Deficiency Appropriation Bill for 1941, Hearings [Washington: GPO, 1941], p. 506.

In July the Appropriations Committee requested that the War Department consider consolidating its activities into a single, large building. Architects and army engineers, under the supervision of Brigadier General Brehon B. Somervell (U.S.M.A., 1914), chief of the Construction Division, Quartermaster Corps, rapidly designed a pentagonal building covering 6,500,000 square feet, to be built within a year of the appropriation of $35,000,000. (Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 1st sess., vol. 87, pp. 6301–2.) The bill to do this (H.R. 5412) was approved on August 25. After President Roosevelt ordered the site moved, for aesthetic reasons, a half mile further down the Potomac River, construction began in September 1941. No official name for the structure was picked until early 1942, although the shape suggested “Pentagon Building” as one of the possibilities. (Frank McCarthy Notes on Proposed War Department Building, n.d. [August 15? 1941], NA/RG 165 [OCS, SGS, Notes on Conferences and Decisions File]; Somervell Memorandum to the Secretary of War, August 20, 1941, ibid.)
Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981– ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 531–532.

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