The Puzzle Palace, Fort Fumble, the Big Spoke, Bat Cave on the Basin, the Concrete Carousel.
The world’s most famous five sided building has many nicknames, but the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense is more simply known as the Pentagon.
2018 marks the 75th anniversary of this iconic Washington, DC landmark.
In the late 1930’s, as the world edged closer to war, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and War Department leaders knew they needed a new building to house the department’s expanding workforce. At that time, employees were scattered in multiple buildings around the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Designing and planning the new building began in earnest in 1940, with two proposed sites selected in Arlington, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington. The first proposed site was the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Arlington Experimental Farm. The other was Hoover Field, an early Washington area commercial airport. The Pentagon owes its particular five-sided shape to the irregular layout of the experimental farm location. The unique design of five pentagons nested together connected by radiating hallways allowed planners to maximize the structure’s available work space.
Ultimately, the Hoover Field site was selected over the farm location, but the five-sided design was kept. The building was to be made of concrete, to minimize the need for steel, which was needed for war production. Limestone facades over the concrete completed the neoclassical look of the Pentagon we know today.
The final contracts were signed and ground was immediately broken on September 11, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor three months later only added to the urgency to complete the Pentagon’s construction, which took just sixteen months. When construction was completed on January 15, 1943, some War Department workers had already moved in.
The Pentagon was the headquarters for the War Department from 1943 through 1947, when the National Security Act formally established the Department of Defense (DoD). Then the Pentagon became the headquarters for this new department as well as for each of the armed services. As the size, budget and influence of the military grew during the Cold War, the term “the Pentagon” would become synonymous with the DoD and American military bureaucracy, with all of its successes and excesses, strengths and weaknesses, victories and mistakes.
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Members of the general public have been able to tour the Pentagon since 1976, when the tour program was implemented as part of America’s bicentennial. Today Pentagon tours are still available, but they do require some planning ahead.
Tours are by reservation only, which can be made by visiting the Pentagon Tours website. Reservations must be made at least two weeks before the tour date. The DoD is very careful about who is allowed into their headquarters so follow all the instructions on the website carefully.
On the day of the tour, arrive at the Pentagon Visitor Center (near the entrance to the Pentagon Metro Station) with sufficient time to clear an airport style security checkpoint. The Pentagon tours website recommends arriving one hour ahead of time.
After clearing security, there is a waiting area, also used by other Pentagon visitors. The waiting area has a gift shop with the expected collection of hats, key chains, post cards and other trinkets with Pentagon or military service themes. (If something catches your eye, be sure to buy it before the tour begins as you will not pass by the gift shop again). There is also a mockup Pentagon briefing podium and backdrop for taking selfies or group photos, sure to impress friends and family.
Tours are led by junior enlisted service members. One cannot help but feel a bit of pride in these young men and women, dressed in their class A uniforms with crisp creases and polished brass. Guides are selected from the military services various honor guard units stationed in the area. One guide confided it is a good job to have, working in a climate controlled building with weekends and holidays off. The biggest challenge he said was memorizing all the facts and walking backwards for most of the mile-long tour.
As one of the world’s largest office buildings, the guide had many facts about the Pentagon to share. They are recited effortlessly, with machine gun-like repetition. The Pentagon is five stories tall, with an additional two stories underground and covers 28.7 acres. Today there are over 17 miles of corridors, 54 escalators, 70 elevators, 131 stairways, 284 restrooms, 8,979 parking spaces, 16,250 lighting fixtures and 26,000 employees.
The tour followed the guide up one of the 54 escalators to the Pentagon’s extensive retail area. The original building designers wisely included extensive retail space so workers would not have to leave the building for common necessities. Today the Pentagon’s workers can visit about 20 fast food restaurants, three banks, a clothing store, drug store, barber shop, hair salon, dry cleaners, jewelers, post office, vision center, even an office of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
But the tour is more than just facts, figures and shopping. Many Pentagon corridors have special defense-related themes with museum quality displays. However, the tour is only about 60 minutes long. While the tour group keeps moving most of that time, the size of the building makes it impossible to see every special exhibit in that amount of time. The tour planners though selected a route that allows the guides to broadly focus on the missions of the U.S. Armed Forces and their storied pasts.
The center piece of the Air Force displays is a series of scale models of Air Force aircraft, past and present. After the guide discussed the size of the C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft, the capabilities of the F-22 Raptor fighter and the stealthiness of the B-2 Spirit bomber, he pointed out his favorite aircraft, the Waco CG-4A Combat Glider.
The guide explained how the gliders saw service during World War II. The light bodied aircraft earned the nickname “the Flying Coffin” due to their precarious mission of flying unarmed while carrying troops and equipment deep behind enemy lines as a precursor to invasions and large advances. Gliders and their crews served with distinction in Sicily, Burma, Normandy, Southern France and Bastogne among other places.
Somewhat surprisingly, the tour next passed the displays of the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is a component of the Department of Homeland Security, not the DoD. But at several times through its history, especially during wartime, the Coast Guard has served as part of the Navy. The displays trace the Coast Guard’s history from its forerunners first establishment in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service. Naval aviation followed the Coast Guard, then a corridor dedicated to Dwight D. Eisenhower represented the Army.
The one stop the tour does make is at Pentagon’s interior 9/11 Memorial. The memorial is located on the first floor of the outer ring, in the area struck by American Airlines Flight 77. The walls of the memorial feature a textured metallic finish with black stone tablets recognizing the sacrifices made that day, commemorating the names of those who died and detailing the medals awarded to the military and civilian casualties. Adjoining the memorial is the Pentagon Memorial Chapel, which opened in 2002.
The corridor leading to the memorial and chapel has one of the Pentagon’s most unique displays, the Pentagon Memorial Quilts. In the months and years after the attack, individuals and groups from across the United States (and some foreign countries as well) sewed then donated quilts to the Pentagon to mark the tragedy and aid in recovery. The quilts reflect a variety of themes but most reflect patriotism, loss, memorializing the fallen, gratitude for the responders and support for the military. There are about 120 quilts in the collection. Around fifty are displayed at the Pentagon with others rotated and loaned for display in communities and military facilities around the world.
Because of the security precautions, visiting the Pentagon takes a special effort, but it is well worth it. The Pentagon’s size, shape and mission certainly make it a unique location to visit. But walking its hallways, hearing its history, seeing its occupants walk briskly about, and seeing the exhibits remind us all of what it takes to serve.
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The best way to reach the Pentagon is by taking the Metro Rail system. There is a Metro station at the Pentagon, served by the Blue and Yellow lines. As you exit the metro gates, make a left and proceed up the escalator. The Pentagon Visitors’ Center will be on your right.
There is NO public parking at the Pentagon. If traveling by car, park in the parking garage at the Pentagon City Mall. The Pentagon is about a 10-minute walk away. After exiting the parking garage or mall, cross Army-Navy drive and take a pedestrian tunnel over to the Pentagon. When you exit the tunnel, follow signs for the Metro, which will lead you to the Pentagon Visitor’s Center. Visit the Pentagon Tours website for more information.
There is no eating during the Pentagon tour and unless you have an escort, you will not be able to visit any of the Pentagon’s eating establishments. The nearby Pentagon City Mall and neighborhood have a wide variety of dining options