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February 8, 2016

#ThrowbackThursday: Why the Pentagon Has Five Sides


The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C. on Aug. 25, 2013. The 6.5 million-square-foot building was built from 1941 to1943. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

For this week’s edition of Throwback Thursday, we turn to a 2007 book excerpt about how the Defense Department headquarters came to be a five-sided building.

The book, “The Pentagon: A History” is by Steve Vogel. And the answer to the question is surprisingly simple. On the original site where the DOD HQ was planned, the shape of the land demanded the shape of the building.

The Arlington Farm tract had a peculiar asymmetrical pentagon shape bound on five sides by roads or other divisions. Finally, guided by the odd shape of the plot, they designed an irregular pentagon. A sketch by Socrates Thomas Stathes, a young War Department draftsman, showed a square with a corner cut off, more or less matching the tract’s shape. It was really two buildings, a five-sided ring surrounding a smaller one of the same shape.

The wonderfully-named Socrates Stathes had more to say besides:

Lacking symmetry, with rows of wings sticking out, the building was frankly quite ugly. Yet, given the site, the pentagonal design had one overriding virtue, Stathes remembered more than 60 years later: “It fit.”

There was a fight over the site, and it eventually moved. “Yet the chief architect and his team continued with plans for a pentagon at the new location. There was no time to change them,” Vogel writes.

As it happened there were some good things about the “ugly” design after all, but read on for Vogel’s explanation of that, as well as for his account of the political squabbles over the building and the remarkable speed at which everything came together anyway.

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