Seventeen years of Pentagon renovations: Steve Vogel discusses the history and more

Jun 22, 2011

After nearly 17 years, the job to renovate the Pentagon is complete. Its renovation, however, went on for so long that the first parts completed are showing their age. And some equipment, including fire alarms and electrical and mechanical systems, are already being upgraded.

Join National reporter Steve Vogel as he chats about the renovations, the history of the Pentagon, why the renovations took so long and more, Wednesday June 22, at 11 a.m. ET.

Have a question? Ask now.

Hello everyone. After 17 years, the renovation of the Pentagon is finally done, ending one of the largest reconstruction projects in the world. Watching the work proceed over the years and learning and writing about the building's history has been fascinating. I'm looking forward to talking about this today.

Did "Doc" Cooke have support from OSD during his long-running efforts to renovate the building or was it a largely "one-man" crusade because of his unique position in the bureaucracy?

That's a great question to start with, because althought 13,000 people worked on the project, it's quite likely the Pentagon renovation would not have happened without Doc Cooke. In his decades as the unofficial mayor of the Pentagon, Doc had built up a great deal of authority and credence on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington. Neither the DoD leadership nor Congress really wanted to tackle such an enormous undertaking that was clearly going to cost billions of dollars and be subject to much criticism, but Doc was able to persuade enough people that the safety of the building and the people working in it were at stake.

How did the renovations potentially help save lives during 9/11?

The blast-resistant windows clearly saved the lives of some of the people who were in E-Ring offices that day, among them Peter Murphy, general counsel for the Marine Corps. The windows did contain some of the blast within the building, which likely caused more destruction elsewhere.

The program had also added structural support behind the limestone facade that was critical in keeping portions of the building intact. The biggest difference, though, was that much of the renovated area was empty - people hadn't moved back in yet, by good fortune.

Does the Defense Department have its own personnel who make repairs within the Pentagon, or does it contract out any of this work to the private sector?

The renovation work was done by contractors hired by the program. Hensel Phelps, a Colorado-based contractor, oversaw most of the work in wedges 2-5, while General Dynamics did the IT work.

Most of the routine repairs are done by the Pentagon building staff. With a 6.5 million square-foot building holding 22,000 people, they're kept pretty busy answering calls from people who have water dripping on their heads and the like.

Can you explain what design-build is and how it made a difference on the Pentagon renovation project?

Design-build is basically the idea that you want your architect and contractor working as a team, rather than as rivals. Often in a construction project, you hire an architect to design the project and then a contractor to build the plans, and then the two of them end up butting heads and blaming each other for the problems. Lee Evey, who had no construction background, read an article in the home improvement section of the Washington Post, of all places, and learned about the design-build concept. He introduced it to the Pentagon renovation, and the result was truly a team effort that changed the whole tone of the project.

Lee Evey was succeded by how many directors of the renovation

There have been a lot of people over the years. I'll see how many I can remember. Lee was succeeded by Mike Sullivan, who had been his deputy during the Phoenix Project. I believe Ken Catlow was next. Sajeel Ahmed, who started on the IT side, has been in charge for the last several years. Apologies for anyone I've left out - please let me know.

In the 1990s, I had to go to the Pentagon for meetings, and the majority of people in attendance were perfect candidates for working at home since the tasks were data analysis (excel) and reporting. Also, at that time there was some momentum to minimize TDY with on-line mtgs. Could we see in the next several years, a reduction of personnel who are physically working in the Pentagon, and instead working from home? Could the Pentagon itself actually become, essentially, a museum with the majority of activity requiring a physical presence being dispersed among military installations and even Crystal City?

While there are a number of DoD jobs that can be done via teleworking, there are always a lot more that either for security reasons or other factors require fact-to-face contact. Part of the renovation has included an assessment of who really needs to be in the Pentagon and near the leadership. So while the faces may change, I can guarantee you that the numbers won't decline. There are many more always clamoring to get in The Building.

That said, the Pentagon is already a museum in many ways. The renovation has included a reworking of many of the hall exhibits, and you could easily spend days wandering the corridors looking at different displays. I would actually rank it as one of the top military museums in the country already.

Mr. Vogel: After reading the article, I got the impression that early planning for the work was not well coordinated. It doesn't appear that there was serious consideration of a comprehensive phasing plan until after the work was commenced. As a retiree from a local school system that did facility renovations, we always included a meeting with our architects, engineers and construction management people, both in house and consulting, to create a detailed phasing plan which still allowed occupation and normal operations while the work proceeded. The renovations of the Pentagon are obviously more complex, since the building was essentially gutted. Also, there is the problem of security of classified documents and operations. You can't put those assets in a temporary trailer. 17 years for a building of that size does not seem excessive to me. Nor am I surprised, given the age of the building and its life cycle requirements, that certain components, such as mechanical equipment are now reaching the end of their usability.

Those are all good observations. You're certainly right that the early part of the work was not well-coordinated. You had different parts of the renovation program working in silos, not knowing what the other parts were doing. The early work was disastrous. Secretary Perry shut down the project for a while because he was so upset by the noise. Quality control was almost non-existent. Design-build addressed some of those early problems.

And you're right that 17 years is not excessive for a project that size. Still, we shouldn't forget that the original construction was done in 17 months. And the first employees were moved into the building just seven months after ground-breaking! The plank-walkers, they were called, because they had to walk over planks across mud and dust to get into the building. So for much of the 17 months, the building was occupied while construction continued around the Army workers. I tell that story in "The Pentagon: A History" published by Random House in 2007 for anyone interested.

How did they originally construct the Pentagon in only 17 months? And do you know why those chose a pentagon shape?

The War Department had a couple of secret weapons to build the Pentagon in 17 months. One was Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, the chief of Army construction, who dreamed up the project, sold Gen. Marshall and President Franklin Roosevelt on the idea, and then by force of personality made it happen in stunningly short order. Somervell was a force of nature, and the Pentagon would not exist without him.

Somervell's secret weapon was his deputy, Col. Leslie Groves, who would go on to head the Manhattan Project building the atomic bomb.

As for the shape, that's quite an accident of history.  The original site near Arlington Cemetery was five-sided, and after they moved the building downriver there was no time to change it. I tell that story in the Pentagon book and in this excerpt from the Post magazine:

I have heard that Dolley Madison saw to it that a portrait of George Washington was rescued from the White House before the British invaded and burned the White House. Is it true that before they torched the White House, the British General took home the portrait of Dolley Madison, who it is said was a striking woman?

It's interesting because we often think that the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon was an unprecedented attack on the American government. We often forget that nearly 200 years ago, during the War of 1812, the British captured Washington and burned not only the White House and the Capitol, but also the War Department, Treasury, Navy Yard and every goverment building save the Patent/Post Office.

Dolley Madison did indeed see to it that the portrati by Gilbert Stuart was rescued. A small portrait of Dolley was taken by a British soldier, but his conscience was stricken and he returned it years later.

That's all a subject for another book - and in fact I've written about these events in August-September 1814 in a book to be published next year by Random House.


I work in the Pentagon. Can you tell me where the 1600 sq ft of unrenovated space is? Would really appreciate it.

It's along the east side of Corridor 2. It's really a miracle that it was saved, and it took some fast action at the last minute by people concerned about the Pentagon history. Right now there's not much if anything to see, because they're still working on it. I believe the idea is to show what the Pentagon looked like during several different eras, including World War II. I'm sure we'll be writing about it as it approaches public display.

Mr. Vogel: I posted earlier concerning the planning aspect of the project. While I agree that the Design-Build concept creates a team structure, another advantage over the standard design, bid, and contract award process is that Design-Build allows a project to be fast tracked; that is not all elements of the work need to be in construction document form all at the same time, but can be developed as the work progresses. The construction time using the standard architect-contractor relationship for the Pentagon might have taken longer than 17 years.

That's absolutely true. Design-Build allowed a lot of innovative concepts to be introduced to the entire bid process that rewarded good work and included incentives for early delivery.

I don't doubt that the renovation would still be underway without it.

Of course there will always be more renovation. The roof work, which is seperate from the renovation program, is still underway. And has mentioned in the article, some of the first work done in the basement and wedge 1, including fire alarms and some of the mechanical and electrical systems, is nearing the end of its life cycle and is being replaced. So the Pentagon renovation is a sense will never end.

Thanks all for the great questions. Please feel free to contact me at or through with further comments or questions

In This Chat
Steve Vogel
Steve Vogel is a reporter for the National Staff of The Washington Post covering the federal government. He is the author of "The Pentagon: A History", which was published by Random House in 2007, and a forthcoming history of the British capture of Washington and attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812, to be published next year by Random House.
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