“Temporary” to the U.S. government’s way of thinking does not mean the same as it does to you or me in the sense of “here for a while and then soon gone.”
The great monument to the government’s sense of “temporary” was a sprawling complex of barracks-like gray buildings hastily thrown up in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall to accommodate the need for extra office space during World Wars I and II.
They were to be torn own immediately on the conclusion of those wars and the area returned to the original park-like state. In the end they were not torn down until the 1970s, and only then thanks to nearly six years of ceaseless badgering by President Richard Nixon.
Now, a 42-acre site of prime capital real estate containing 1 million square feet of “temporary” wartime space is finally being cleared of a complex of seven drab four-story buildings that are more than 65 years past their “raze-by” date.
Originally erected as temporary warehouses on the eve of World War II, they were quickly pressed into service as Navy and Marine Corps offices when hostilities broke out, thus illustrating a key law of government: For any empty space, a function will form to fill it.
Indeed, the grim recesses of what came to be called the Navy Annex were where the Marine Corps directed its World War II island-hopping campaign and the Navy Command Center camped after the 9/11 attacks wrecked its offices in the Pentagon.
The buildings might still have survived except for a grandiose government scheme to disperse national security facilities farther out into the capital suburbs. Naturally, the planners picked two of the most congested suburban locations in Virginia and Maryland, leaving it up to the local jurisdictions to decide how best to cope with the traffic.
That may be why the savvy bureaucrats were reluctant to leave their Soviet-style, but easily accessible, temporary quarters. The government stepped up pressure, ending food service and removing the ATMs, and now the stopgap complex thrown up in 1941 is finally empty and undergoing demolition.
The site, however, will acquire a new permanence. It will be incorporated into rapidly filling Arlington National Cemetery for additional gravesites for the nation’s honored dead, on a plateau overlooking the Pentagon and the capital with its monuments beyond. It’s an honorable fate for an unloved complex that, however humbly, served its country well, if far longer than intended.