September 11: the Pentagon

2012/09/11 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1941 construction of the Pentagon commenced.

The Pentagon was designed to serve as the headquarters of the US Department of Defense and to address two specific issues: first, the continual overcrowding of the Department that had been housed in inadequate and disparate buildings around Washington, and second, the expectation that the Department would grow if and when the US was brought into the war that was then ravaging Europe.

Two demands placed on the architect and contractors made a significant difference for the building’s later, tragic history.  First, with expectations that at the close of the war the DOD would shrink (imagine that) and its building would be turned over to use as a records facility, the floor structure was required to support a greater-than-average dead load for an office building.  Second, the government directed the building to have little steel due to its scarcity in 1941.  The resulting building was thicker, heavier, more massy than it might have been otherwise.

Construction proceeded apace and was quickened after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7.  Sixteen months later it was complete and dedicated on January 15, 1943.  This was an amazing feat considering that this was no ordinary office building but the world’s largest with over 6.5 million square feet under roof to support the work of about 30,000 people.

Sixty years after its groundbreaking, the Pentagon was gravely damaged on September 11, 2001 when a Boeing 757-223 hijacked by terrorists was crashed into it, killing all 64 on the plane and 189 on the ground.  In addition to the damage done by the impact, the plane leaked 10,000 gallons of fuel into the building, almost a third of which was damaged by either the initial impact or resulting fire.

A team of experts with experience in rebuilding other blast-damaged buildings was quickly assembled; their early estimates suggested the building could be rebuilt in three years.  Although the need to return tens of thousands of employees to work was important, the symbolic desire to restore the building to its complete state was even more instrumental in encouraging the construction crews to finish the work with unimaginable speed.  The impossible-sounding goal of completing the building’s reconstruction in a single year was embraced by government officials, contractors and work crews.  The building’s original quarry was kept open all winter to ensure a constant supply of limestone to the site; workers toiled around the clock, skipping holidays and weekends.  Called the Phoenix Projet, reconstruction on the Pentagon was completed not in three years, nor in a single year, but just a bit over eleven months.

No building should have to be designed to withstand such a heinous and violent attack.  For a building designed with no consideration that such an assault would ever take place on American soil (although during the Cold War many expected a Russian missile was trained on its five-sided bull’s-eye), the Pentagon behaved phenomenally well.  Even though its response was coincidental–the relative shortness of the four-story building was designed to avoid blocking views of the Capital’s historic sites; the strength of the structure and its ability to absorb tremendous force was an answer to wartime steel shortages and the expectation that the building one day would become a file cabinet farm–it is significant.  It’s also worth recognition that the building’s very design no doubt saved many lives on a day that saw so many lost.

Image: the Pentagon, ca. 1945 (from this source)

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