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The Pentagon: Newly Acquired Construction Photos by Harold Lang

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View looking down on Pentagon complex
Aerial view of the Pentagon, Arlington, Va. Photo by U.S. Air Corps, 1947?

The following is a guest post by Gillian Mahoney, Technical Services Technician in the Prints & Photographs Division.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes, crashing two into the World Trade Center in New York, one into a field in Pennsylvania, and the fourth, American Airlines Flight 77, into the western side of the Pentagon, in total killing nearly 3,000 people–an unforgettable tragedy. The 20th anniversary of these terrorist attacks also marks another landmark in the history of the Pentagon: the 80th anniversary of groundbreaking for the construction of the complex. From September 11, 1941, the Pentagon, with its five-sided-structure, has been instantly recognizable and synonymous with American military strength.

We are able to highlight the construction anniversary through the 2020 acquisition of a set of 150 Pentagon construction photographs by Harold Lang. Curator of Architecture, Design, and Engineering, Mari Nakahara noted the strength of this collection coming from “Mr. Lang’s innovative and artistic way of observing the overall construction of the Pentagon as an architect as well as a photographer.”

Let’s take a look at some of these newly acquired images and see what they can tell us.

Initially projected to take four years, this mammoth project was completed in just 16 months, with a crew of 4,000 workers working 24 hours a day in three shifts, spurred on by the threat and eventual declaration of World War II. Crews broke ground the same day the contracts were approved, and the draftsmen were finalizing designs as the Pentagon was being built around them. In these images, you can see the rows of draftsmen working in a hastily constructed workspace, and construction crews streaming onto the site.

Interior with men working at drafting tables under large lights
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Staff at work in drafting room. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942.
Men walking up stairs and climbing ladders
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Work site. Workers. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942,

By taking a closer look at these images, we can see hints about available materials and war-time limitations. With steel in short supply due to World War II, architects turned to an alternative material of similar strength – reinforced concrete. Pictured here are instances of concrete use during construction. From the concrete transport truck of a local D.C. concrete company, Howat Concrete Co., to the steel reinforcing bars, or “rebars” standing upright.

Scene with back of truck near railroad car and construction in the background
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Work site. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942.
Workmen standing among vertical metal bars
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Work site. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942.

Beyond depicting the design and construction process, the Lang photographs provide a sense of the site before construction began. The site chosen was originally home to the obsolete Hoover Airport, but to build adequate roads, parking lots, and the sewer system, the government needed additional land. Using eminent domain, the federal government seized the neighborhood of East Arlington and forced the relocation of over 900 residents within two months of receiving notice. East Arlington was a Black community with many members descending from residents of Freedman’s Village – established by the federal government in 1863 to house displaced and formerly enslaved people. When residents received notice to vacate, only those who owned homes, estimated at 40% of households, were compensated for their property at a value set by the government. Additionally, no compensation was given for the loss of residents’ wages or employment, despite having many of the community’s places of work seized as part of clearing the site for construction. In a response to a personal plea from a lawyer for a group of East Arlington residents, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervened, and set up trailers for displaced residents who had been unable to find other housing, though residents paid the federal government rent to stay in these mobile homes. These images depict some of the structures seized for construction.

View from above showing collapsing wooden structures
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Neighborhood before demolition. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942.
Wooden building with "OK" marked near the front door
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Church before demolition. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942,

In addition to the story of eminent domain, Lang’s photos provide context about working conditions on the construction site, how draftsmen spent their free-time and relaxed, and how materials were made and used.

Scene showing wooden structures in foreground standing in water, construction equipment in the background
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Work site. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942.
Men standing in hole operating chains and ropes, man sitting on ledge above them
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction]. Work site. Stairwell. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942,
Men gathered indoors around a table with money on it
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Staff shooting dice in drafting room. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942,
Scene with exterior walls of the building in the background, piles of dirt and supplies in the foreground
Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Construction. Work site. Photo by Harold Lang, 1941 or 1942,

This collection provides a way to explore the construction process of a now iconic American building, and to learn more about the complex history of the site – so take some time to look carefully and see what these images can tell you.

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Comments (5)

  1. This is a wonderful collection. Truly “worth a thousand [÷] words”.

  2. I was in the service and assigned to Army Television.
    Room 5B1066.
    Great place and people!

  3. Dandy photos, great to see. Thank you!

    BTW: The photo Lang titled “House before demolition” clearly is not a house. The door in the gable end is a clue: typical of vernacular church architecture in the South (and probably elsewhere in the U.S.). But the real clue is in the fascinating [poetic?] sign above the door:

    “Is God a Murder
    of His Own Children
    to the Countries at
    War [too difficult to read] God”
    I hope someone can decipher that bottom line!

    Best from Carl Fleischhauer

    • Thanks, Carl Fleischhauer, for the close looking! We adjusted the caption and our catalog record to describe it as a church, rather than a house, before demolition.

  4. Great look into how the Pentagon was developed! Now if we can find the answer to the mystery of why ramps were built in certain areas of the building….

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