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The Pentagon is the largest low-rise building in the world


Nowadays when the date September 11th is mentioned, thoughts normally travel back to New York and Washington on that fateful day in 2001 when American buildings came under attack by enemy combatants. Eleven years later, history would repeat itself in Benghazi, Libya as the American Embassy was also brutally attacked.

These, however, are not the only days of American history when September 11th is connected with an important American building. In 1941, ground was broken for an American icon on September 11th when construction of the Pentagon, home of the United States Department of Defense, began in Arlington County, Virginia.

In July 1941, Adolf Hitler made President Franklin D. Roosevelt very nervous. Due to the vast control Hitler then held over Europe, and his surprise attack in Russia, FDR declared a national emergency on May 27th. Soon afterwards, the War Department in Washington began to grow by leaps and bounds. Before long, 24,000 employees were housed in 17 different locations; including apartment buildings, private homes and even a few rented garages. The number of employees was anticipated to reach 30,000 by the following year.

Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall needed a solution and turned to Brig. General Brehon Burke Somerville for the answer. This hard-nosed operator, commonly referred to as “dynamite in a Tiffany box,” looked to his Chief of Design, Lt. Colonel Hugh “Pat” J. Casey, one of the Army’s most brilliant engineers, for help. On the evening of July 17, 1941, the verbal groundbreaking for the Pentagon took place.

As plans were laid, the War Department stated the structure needed to be large enough to house 40,000 people, with parking space for 10,000 cars. Casey knew there was no place in Washington, D.C. with enough ground space available to accommodate a structure of that magnitude. Now, the $64,000 question on everyone’s mind was, “Where do we put this thing?”

A powerful congressman from Virginia, Representative Clifton A. Woodrum, had the answer. In Virginia, just east of Arlington National Cemetery, lay a 67-acre tract of land. Like the cemetery, this land was originally part of Arlington Farms, the grand estate once belonging to General Robert E. Lee. With the location now settled on, it was time to design the building.

As creative minds quickly went to work, square and rectangular shaped buildings were ruled out; one reason being the interior distances would be too vast. Another was the shape of the plot of land on which the structure would stand. The tract had an asymmetrical shape to it, bound on five different sides by roads and other divisions, thus the five-sided shape was chosen. This design also served to recall Civil War-era battlements.

General Somervell required the building be only four stories for two reasons: 1) there was a wartime scarcity of steel and 2) prevent blocking the views of Washington. Somervell stated the building would be completed within a year and by the end of six months, 500,000 square feet of the building would be ready for use. Working over the weekend, the design team was able to create enough room for 40,000 employees. Approximately 100 square feet of floor space was allotted for each employee.

The chosen site was originally nothing more than a wasteland of dumps and swamps. Construction of the building’s foundation began with the use of 5.5 million cubic yards of earth and 41,492 concrete piles. In addition, 680,000 tons of gravel and sand were dredged from the Potomac River to process the concrete.

Designed by American architect George Bergstrom and built by John McShain, construction of the Pentagon began on September 11, 1941, three months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941). In the beginning, the construction crew included approximately 3,000 individuals, however construction fell behind schedule. Supervising the construction was Corps of Engineers Colonel Leslie R. Groves, who would later head the Manhattan Project which built the atomic bomb.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, patriotic pride poured into the project, with 15,000 individuals now working round-the-clock in three eight-hour shifts. The construction workers moved at such a rapid pace, the architects had to work quickly to remain one step ahead of the pile drivers. The determination this quantity of manpower brought with it allowed the project to be completed 16 months later on January 15, 1943, at a cost of approximately $83 million.

Once the building was ready for occupancy, the War Department quickly consolidated everyone under one roof. By doing so, the savings generated allowed the Pentagon to pay for itself within seven years. The Pentagon’s first occupants moved in on April 30, 1942 and the grand opening occurred on January 14, 1943.

Following World War II, a new question was voiced, “What to do with the Pentagon since the War Department would not need a building this large in peacetime?” Some recommended turning it into a hospital or a university; possibly even headquarters for the Veterans Administration. Rather than collecting packing boxes, the Army let it be known the Pentagon was their building and they were not going anywhere. It did not take long for the military to find plenty of uses for the space.

On July 26, 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the National Security Act while aboard the Sacred Cow, America’s original "Air Force One". The Act went into effect on September 18, 1947 and added a new member to the President’s cabinet – Secretary of Defense.

James V. Forrestal was the first to hold the post and received the nickname “godfather of the national security state”. The task assigned to him was extremely challenging and the stress of the job took a heavy toll on Forrestal. Soon after Truman replaced him in January 1949, Forrestal suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide.

In 1949, the Act was amended in an effort to create the National Military Establishment. The Act also created the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a separate Department of the Air Force from the Army Air Forces. On August 10, the Secretary of Defense was given total power over the armed forces and the office was renamed Department of Defense. In June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and the Pentagon staff returned to its wartime numbers, now totaling 33,000 individuals.

A combination building, institution and symbol; the Pentagon spans an area of 28.7 acres, including 5.1 acres within the central courtyard. Nicknamed the “Puzzle Palace”, it contains 17.5 miles of corridors and 6.5 million feet of floor space, with 3.7 million comprising offices. Floor space alone makes the Pentagon the largest office building in the world. It is also a living entity, one of few buildings that “speak”. (Other examples include the Vatican in Rome, the Kremlin in Moscow and the House of Parliament in London.)

The Pentagon is composed of five concentric rings, labeled, “A” – “E”, each with two parts. “A” ring is the innermost section and “E” the outermost and where senior officials have their offices. In addition to the five office floors, there is also a basement which contains seven rings (the additional ones labeled “F” and “G”) and a mezzanine.

Offices are numbered according to the floor, concentric ring, corridor and room number. For example – 3D426 would be found on the third floor of “D” ring in corridor 4, office number 26. As large and complicated as the building may sound, with a little practice the average person can easily navigate from one location to another anywhere within the building in less than seven minutes.

Literally a city unto itself, the Pentagon has its own “mayor”, appointed by the Secretary of Defense, and six zip codes. There is also a fire department, police, hospital, restaurants, retail stores, and an athletic club. The building’s southeast side houses the main entrance, used by Pentagon employees and others. The River Entrance, aptly named because it faces the Potomac, is the VIP entrance, used by the President of the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other noted individuals. The Mall Entrance is the second of the ceremonial entrances and is used by the Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy.

Numbered among the world’s largest office buildings, the Pentagon contains three times the floor space of New York’s Empire State Building and can comfortably house the national Capitol in just one of its five sections. It is one of the most efficient office buildings in operation today, even though it was built in the early years of World War II.

In the middle of the inner courtyard sits a gazebo which houses a restaurant. On the gazebo’s roof is a wooden owl. Some say the owl is there to chase away birds, while others comment about an owl’s ability to easily turn its head in all directions. During the Cold War, the restaurant was referred to as “Ground Zero” by many who worked at the Pentagon because it was believed the Russians had nuclear weapons aimed at the Pentagon and trained on the owl.

On April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. The bombing resulted in a decision being made to renovate the Pentagon, in an effort to reinforce the structure so as to withstand a possible future attack. Wise were the minds that made that decision and quickly started the work.

On September 11, 2001, 50 years to the day of the Pentagon’s groundbreaking, and 6.5 years following the Oklahoma disaster, the structure was put to a severe test. That morning, American Airlines Flight 77 left Washington’s Dulles International Airport in route to Los Angeles. Then, 35 minutes into the flight, the plane was hijacked and rerouted back towards Washington, D.C.

During its descent, the plane did a 3-60 around the Pentagon and at 9:37 a.m., plowed headlong into the building’s southwest side at a speed of approximately 531 mph, carrying 1,000s of gallons of aviation fuel. The aircraft’s explosion caused the building to shake, punctured rings E, D and C, and obliterated the Army’s general staff office, the Navy Command Center and a critical intelligence facility. By 10:10, the fire caused a portion of the Pentagon to collapse. Firefighters would work 48 hours straight to contain the blaze.

The following day, September 12, 2001, everyone working at the Pentagon returned to their jobs and a $501 million repair project named “Operation Phoenix” began. Because the Pentagon was undergoing remodeling at the time of the crash, contractors were already on hand to begin repairs.

Lee Evey was assigned to head up the project and declared on October 5 the deadline set for completion of the reconstruction project would be September 11, 2002. Every participant involved worked out-of-the-box and around the clock to meet the deadline. In the end, Operation Phoenix was completed a month ahead of schedule. On September 11, 2002, a blackened block of limestone from the damage portion of the building was set in place in the new construction, etched with “September 11, 2001”.

Though a dark cloud had fallen over the Pentagon that day, within the darkness a very bright silver lining would later be revealed.

- If the building had to be hit, the area the plane struck (southwest) was the best able to withstand the force of the crash due to recent renovations.

- Normally there were approximately 4,500 people housed in the southwest area of the Pentagon. When the renovations began, that number was reduced to 800. As a result, the death toll was 189 (135 Pentagon workers and 64 individuals on the plane), when otherwise it could easily have been in the thousands.

- A sprinkler system had recently been installed and the completed structural changes included a web of steel bars and columns designed to withstand a bomb blast. The steel was bolted together throughout the five floors in such a way it withstood the stress of the plane crash for a full 30 minutes before the area collapsed, thus offering valuable time for many more people to safely escape.

- The new windows were constructed in a blast-resistant manner and stayed intact during the crash and subsequent fire.

Though a large quantity of hindsight bias is now attributed to 9/11, America would do well to learn a lesson from the wise minds who heeded Oklahoma's explosive warning. Their foresight in beginning the new designs when they did served to drastically reduce the loss of life at the Pentagon on 9/11. In addition, the fact the Pentagon remained in constant operation following the crash, and the speed at which it was repaired, is a magnificent tribute to American determination and patriotism.

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