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Local History: A Pentagon-less Arlington?

Pentagon Construction, aprox 1942

Pentagon Construction: View of almost finished building with bridge and parking areas. U.S. Army photo, no date (assumed 1942)

Calling All Local History Fans…

While answering a reference question, we came across this interesting passage describing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original plans for a War Department building in Arlington: 

…The new building in Arlington would not be the War Department’s permanent headquarters. Ultimately, the department would return to Foggy Bottom in Washington. “Now, my thought is that this new War Department building [in Arlington] would be built on extremely simple lines, and that when this emergency is over, and the War Department… reverts to a peacetime status, they will be able to come back here to their regular place,” he said…

As for the building in Arlington, Roosevelt said, it was perfectly suited for another pet project of his: He wanted a central home for the old files that now used up space in government offices around Washington. He had millions of records in mind, ranging from the individual files of three million Civil War soldiers to the public-land records charting the development of the great West to obscure State Department consular reports on the history of Mongolian ponies. “So I hope that this new building, when this emergency is over, will be used as a records building for the government,” Roosevelt said. - from “The Pentagon: A History” by Steve Vogel, p. 97

In other words, Roosevelt imagined a future where instead of the Pentagon, the area of Southwest Arlington would be home to the much smaller National Archives and Records Administration!

What do you think?

What would have happened to Arlington’s development – and history – if FDR’s vision had been carried out?

  • Would the smaller building have allowed the Queen City neighborhood, which was demolished to make room for Pentagon parking and car traffic, to have survived?
  • How would a smaller National Archives building have impacted neighborhood traffic patterns, or the planning of 395 and the metro lines?
  • Would Arlington and Arlington’s post WWII growth rate have changed?
  • What would have been the impact on military contractors, if the military headquarters had moved back to Foggy Bottom?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


Images of the Pentagon in the 1940s, from the Center for Local History collection:



Comments (5)

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  1. Tad Suiter says:

    People interested in how local geography and history intersect should be sure to check out Don Hawkins’s talk next Thursday

    And those interested in learning more about the Pentagon might be interested in Nancy Perry’s talk on April 3rd.

  2. hank dudley says:

    My mother and father both worked in the Pentagon in early 1942,while the last two sides were under construction.My mother said everyone had colds and flu from the damp, green concrete still curing.According to her the building was to become a veterans’ hospital after the war; anyone who has been in the building knows there are long ramps ,suitable for wheelcairs,not stairs between floors. For the first months of their marriage, Mom worked day shift for CIC,and Dad worked midnights in the message center. They would see each other mainly for breakfast in the cafeteria!

  3. Joan West says:

    When FDR assumed the presidency, many of the nation’s historic documents were stored in the White House garage. In 1933, President Hoover laid the cornerstone for the National Archives building but before the building was completed, it was clear that it could not accommodate all the records so the original interior courtyard was replaced with storage stacks. Although archivists moved into the building in 1935, it was not complete for another two years. A fuller history with photographs is at: Storage continued to be a problem (when I worked there in the 1980s there was satellite storage for maps, patents and aerial photographs in Alexandria and another huge facility in Maryland, where Bill Clinton’s passport was infamously compromised). It’s an intriguing thought that the nation’s records could have ended up in the Pentagon.

  4. Jim Strudwick says:

    Roosevelt’s notion of a postwar central records depot would have used the Pentagon building, not a smaller structure. Perhaps the Pentagon could have met the space needs of the three (current) archives/records centers in the metro DC area, but it undoubtedly would have had fewer people using it & the attendant transportation facilities. However, the freeways and interchanges, built for wartime Pentagon use, would have been in place, as well as the new National Airport . . .

    • Tad Suiter says:

      The negotiations around the Pentagon were actually fairly complex for a building that went up so quickly, and I don’t doubt that Roosevelt might have thought of using the Pentagon as it stands for the records administration.

      However, the specific moment in the planning process that I’m discussing here is based on a meeting between Roosevelt and General Brehon Somervell on August 25, 1941. To quote from Vogel on page 97 again: “…Roosevelt said traffic congestion made a building of 4 million square feet unfeasible, and the building should therefore be no larger than 2.25 million square feet.”

      The Petagon as it stands today is actually even LARGER than Somervell’s plan at that phase, at over five million square feet, and over twice the size of Roosevelt’s proposal at that time.

      This is also supported by “Constructing the Pentagon,” by Janet A. McDonnell, in Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II, which is linked above, though the link from the Army Corps of Engineers is not currently working. (When it is, it will be updated if need be!), which also cites Roosevelt’s uncle, Fredrick Delano, as the impetus for his wanting to build the War Department Headquarters smaller, so as not to interfere as much with Arlington Cemetery or the Lincoln Memorial’s views.

      At that point, with the money approved by congress but the exact location and design of the building still under some debate, Roosevelt was definitely trying to negotiate Somervell down on the issue of size.

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