Friday, December 07, 2007

Way cooler than "The Octagon"

Title: The Pentagon: A History
By Steve Vogel

I'm not sure why I read this book. But I don't mean that in a bad way. It's about the Pentagon, which I've never actually been to, though I live nearby and pass it frequently; plus I have no ties to the military. I'm pretty sure I read some sort of book recommendation in a newspaper or something, thus triggering the request from the library.

And then I started reading this large, heavy book - it's very dense, since it's non-fiction, but rather fascinating. I had no knowledge of the building's history, and suddenly I was spouting gratuitous facts in random conversations ("The Pentagon is five-sided because of the dimensions of its original site!").

As it turns out, The Pentagon was constructed in the middle of WWII. The war department was running out of space, and Gen. Somerville decided that they should build a massive, permanent building just over the Potomac in Virginia. His chosen site was, essentially, across from the Lincoln Memorial, at the point where the Memorial Bridge crosses into Arlington Cemetary, at the foot of the hill housing the Lee mansion. And the site? Bounded by a few roads and boundaries, a five-sided building was the best option for maximizing land usage (they actually tried drawing up several geometric shapes, and it was by far the best), especially since Somerville was supposed to keep the structure to 4 stories (so that all the iron that would have been used in a taller building could be used for warships instead). Massive protests ensued as to the proposed location, and it was subsequently moved to it's current spot, an area next to the former airport known as Hell's Bottom. Of course, the design phase for the building was moving at an incredible pace - something like 6 weeks total to design a 4 million square foot building. And that's why it's still a pentagon - they didn't have time to redesign it. It has concentric rings and spokes to minimize travel distances between opposite sides. The pace was so ridiculous that they designed construction in 5 phases (essentially each corner) such that people could move in and start working before the place was finished! They worked in a construction zone, known as plank-walkers because they literally walked on planks to cross the muddy ground around the building. There's anecdotes of offices being accidentally filled with cement when workers on the roof forgot to close off a ventilation duct, and it essentially had a terrible reputation.

Three months after groundbreak, the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. Suddenly there was an immense amount of support for construction - since all the able-bodied men were off at war, the thousands of workers were, well, not the cream of the crop. But they got it done - the construction of the whole thing took something like 17 months!

Vogel has tidbits about probably hundreds of random people - snapshots of their daily lives as related to the Pentagon, including construction workers, draftsmen, and the plank-walkers. A military reporter for years, he also tracked down some of the initial architects and their descendants. Incidentally, one of the men in charge of Pentagon construction, Gen. Gage, was also in charge of the Manhattan Project - how's that for an impressive resume?

Following completion, which occupies at least half the book, Vogel covers a few major events through the years, such as the Vietnam protest held at the Pentagon in the 60's, leading to the renovation project started in the early 1990's. My favorite part about the renovation was how they discovered all sorts of things not on the blueprints; they found roofing materials between the 4th and 5th floors in much of the building, since it was originally only going to be four floors, then Somerville talked his way to 5 after they had started finishing the roof on top of four. Rather than waste time taking it up, they just put the next floor on top.

And then there was 9/11.

The plane actually struck the only section where renovation had been completed, which turned out to be a blessing. Reinforced windows and other improvements helped contain the destruction, and many employees had not yet moved back in. Much of the section was completely demolished, and rebuilt in record time. This was also the impetus for Vogel to start writing the book; as a military reporter, he covered the events following the crash, and became more curious, as a good reporter should.

The renovation of the entire building continues; though the initial construction took 17 months, renovation is scheduled to take about 17 years. Granted, it doesn't help that the hastily constructed building didn't really meet any building or safety codes prior to the start of renovation...

Vogel gave a talk about the book recently at the National Building Museum - usually I avoid book talks, since I rarely read books that are associated with them, but in this case, I had to go. It was pretty neat - he provided some insight as to his research and motivation, plus took questions from the audience, many of whom were retired military who had worked in the Pentagon.

If you're looking for something non-fluffy, I'd say read this one.

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posted by ket at 4:18 PM


Blogger reyn said...

The book has to be good when even the review is fascinating! Now I need to quit my job so i can read that! (otherwise, they'll be done renovating before I finish reading)

12/10/2007 11:02 AM  

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