Pentagon face lift at age 52 A monumental task: Built in 1943 for $83 million, the Pentagon is getting a $1.2 billion face lift to rid itself of asbestos insulation, lead paint, ancient power lines, and leaky plumbing. The work is to be completed in 2004.

Sun Journal

November 26, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It is the size that strikes you first.

Certainly that's what struck Jerry Shiplett, when he was put in charge of renovating the world's largest, best-known five-sided building.

It is, of course, the Pentagon -- with 6.5 million square feet of floor space, 17.5 miles of corridors running through five concentric rings, all resting on 41,492 concrete piles driven into what was previously the old Hoover airport and a swamp called Hell's Bottom. It is getting a $1.2 billion face lift.

At age 52, it needs it.

Mr. Shiplett will need at least eight years to renovate the building that took just 16 months to build and that architects had needed only 34 days to design.

The original architects' client had been in an understandable rush: The old War Department wanted to place the 30,000 uniformed and civilian defense workers scattered among 17 federal buildings in Washington under one roof, the better to coordinate the conduct of World War II.

The Pentagon's sheer size has earned it the sort of global recognition that more considered architecture has brought to St. Peter's in Rome, the Taj Mahal or the Kremlin. The building contains triple the area of the Empire State Building; any one its five wings could house the U.S. Capitol with room to spare.

Forties Functional

As for design, it is best described as Forties Functional, wholly deprived of frills. President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned the use of marble; the War Department's chief of construction, Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, ruled out the use of bronze doors and copper ornamentation.

Reinforced concrete was substituted for structural steel, saving

43,000 tons of steel, enough to build a battleship. Concrete

ramps substituted for banks of elevators, saving still more metal.

Even if drab, the building was given a striking shape -- one dictated by a site the building never occupied, a square plot of land three-quarters of a mile away, next to Arlington National Cemetery, which had lost one of its corners to a road. It inspired pTC a design for a structure with five sides that could be squeezed onto the site.

But the capital's guardians decided that such a large lump of limestone and concrete would be too visible there. So they chose the more discreet location, for which the design was refined to have five equal sides, each 921 feet long.

It is a national historic landmark -- but it has aged without grace.

"The building is [over] 50 years old and the guts are rotting out of it," says Lt. Col. Christopher P. Boruch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the reconstruction project. He is supported by a report issued in March about the building's condition:

"The circa 1943 Pentagon has suffered from decades of neglect," the report concludes. "Many of the building systems have deteriorated beyond economical repair and require complete replacement Building code violations and unsafe conditions are rampant."

Indeed, it is an environmental nightmare contaminated with asbestos, lead piping and lead paint, the surrounding soil soaked with oil used half a century ago to keep the construction dust down.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, there was a fire inside. When firefighters sent water under pressure through the internal pipes, a 10-foot section of pipe in the Pentagon basement burst, threatening to flood both the Army and Air Force underground command centers.

Instead, the water seeped into an underground tunnel, inundating a heating and refrigeration area to a depth of 7 feet -- but leaving the war rooms untouched. The boilers were found to be the same model as those used in 1904 during the construction of the Panama Canal.

There are routinely 20 or so power outages a day, in one or another part of the building.

In winter, the number doubles, as workers bring in space heaters, putting additional strain on the circuitry. Sewage frequently leaks from the 280 restrooms. Water pipes keep bursting.

For Mr. Shiplett, the architect, the renovations have already brought peculiar problems.

"They told me, 'OK, we want to renovate, Jerry, but we don't want to disturb anybody,' " he says. " 'We need to keep the building operational because it is the nerve center of national defense.' "

His team looked at the roof. There were more than 150 antennas -- but no one knew the function of all them. To solve the riddle, departments were ordered to apply for a permit for any rooftop antenna.

"If it didn't have a permit, we cut it," Mr. Shiplett says. "We had some people screaming very quickly. One of the antennas we cut was very, very sensitive." But in the end, only 80 were claimed.

Colonel Boruch's unenviable job is to keep the Pentagon workers happy and the contractors on schedule.

He has had to deal with noise complaints from Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, whose offices are directly above pile drivers operating in the basement.

"Quiet, quiet, quiet"

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