Designing War Rooms

Earlier this year, Matt Novak at Paleofuture acquired some of architect Eero Saarinen’s Second World War Office of Stategic Services (OSS) personnel papers through the US Freedom of Information Act. The papers, which Novak has helpfully posted online here, seem mostly connected with his draft deferment, but they do include a summary of his work at the time.

I think Novak’s post puts a little too much intrigue into the mention of “pilot models of new weapons and devices.” Saarinen was working in the OSS’s Presentation Division, so the emphasis in that phrase should probably be on models, not on weapons or devices. For example, when it singles out one project of Saarinen’s for special praise the file picks a “three dimensional organization chart” for presenting “problems of procedure and work-flow through various parts of an organization.”

There’s no contradiction, though, between the fact that Saarinen worked in a division so far from the sharp end of the OSS’s secret war and the fact that his Selective Service papers describe him as “irreplaceable.” Within the OSS’s initial mandate, presenting information and facilitating analysis had practically as much profile as espionage and propaganda. In fact, one aspect of the work that Saarinen oversaw – “design, construction, and equipping situation rooms” — was the brainchild of the OSS’s founder, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, himself.

The idea that a presentation division could be something other than an administrative adjunct was pretty much unprecedented when Donovan sketched out his proposal for the organization that would become the OSS in 1941. President Roosevelt created the title of Coordinator of Information for Donovan in July 1941, before the US had entered the Second World War. As the name suggests, his office was supposed to collect, analyse, and circulate in intelligence, but Donovan happily pushed to extend his mandate. Sketching our early organizational charts for Roosevelt’s approval, Donovan proposed including a visual presentation division as either a major unit of the Research and Analysis Branch or a branch of its own that would generate propaganda movies and oversee the design of a grand war room for the President. (This is described in CIA historian Thomas F. Troy’s monograph Donovan and the CIA: A History Of The Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency [available here], from which I’ve drawn most of the details.)

The grand war room was, despite what you might expect, not a minor part of Donovan’s planned agency. Instead it was presented as one of the COI’s major contributions to the war effort. Operating from the core principle that “most government officials, including the President,” were “suffering from mental fatigue from shuffling a large number of papers.’” (qtd. in Troy), Donovan proposed an entire building (or “War Theatre Building”) that would include a main presentation room, economic room, ultra-secret “inner sanctorium,” and twelve theater rooms. Construction was to be overseen by the impresario who had co-directed and produced King Kong, Merian C. Cooper.

Despite the insane grandiosity of the plan, it had the backing of the president, who approved $2 million of the $3.8 million Donovan requested for it in COI’s first budget. That was more than was budgeted for short wave international broadcasting, research and analysis, or movie production. Only intelligence activities got more, at $2.5 million, while medium wave international broadcasting also received $2 million.

That $2 million budget is ample proof that the President was at least initially enthusiastic about Donovan’s vision. So was Captain Francis C. Denebrink, who evaluated COI’s facilities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). In his report, he considered the war room one of the few projects worth taking over (though its $2 million budget may have been a factor). On the other hand, Walter Bedell Smith, JCS secretary and future CIA director, considered it a “big toy” that would be more or less useless.

When the COI was subordinated to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1942 (after the name-change to OSS), the presentation division switched gears and began buildng a war room for the Chiefs in their building at 19th and Constitution. Its not clear, at least from Troy’s narrative, whether this was intended as a stepping-stone to a grander facility or a scaling-down of Donovan’s grandiose plans, but in the end the idea of a presidental war theatre was abandoned.

Leading designers such as Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Henry Dreyfuss had already been hired as consultants for the presidential room by the OSS. Design historian Barry Katz has described the innovative equipment that they and their colleagues (including the young Saarinen) proposed to include (see my blog post on this for links). There would be “epidiascopes” for projecting opaque images onto a screen, “stereomotographs” (or automated slide projectors), and a “Variable-Speed Statistical Visualizer” that would use electric lights to represent relative quantities. Even the smaller-scale setup for the Joint Chiefs featured one room with a full-wall world map with spotlights, projectors, and magnetic symbols, and a second with a proscenium arch and film, slide, and reflecting projectors. Presentation really was a big deal within the OSS.

Expertise in creating war or situation rooms extended beyond those for the president and Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of the memos in the personnel file mentions that Saarinen “designed and supervised the construction of the OSS PW Room” (PW probably means “political warfare” in this context). One of Saarinen’s colleagues, Paul Childs (the future husband of Julia Childs), designed war rooms for the joint Anglo-American South East Asia Command (SEAC) in Sri Lanka and for US general Albert Wedermeyer in China.

In his memoir, future CIA deputy director Russell Jack Smith recalls being interviewed for a job at OSS in the “OSS presentation room.” This “spectacularly beautiful room … was the scene for top-level OSS briefings, and behind the richly handsome draperies along the walls were floor-to-ceiling sliding panels bearing highly classified maps.” His interviewer, Ray Cline, was the chief of the Current Intelligence Staff (part of R&A) and responsible for maintaining the maps and information.

Cline’s own memoirs flesh out the description a little more. He describes the room, which he says was designed by Saarinen, as

a beautifully decorated, air-conditioned briefing room complete with three layers of sliding map panels, a huge, fluted natural wood colmn as room divider, and a modest briefing theater … Because we stored secret State cables, SI reports, and magnificent rubber and plastic topographic models, and because Donovan and [John] Magruder wanted to impress visitors with our early morning oral briefings for senior OSS officials, we had a uniformed guard at the door to admit people by name only.

The OSS room, at 2430 E Street, sounds more elegant but less technologically impressive than the room built for the Joint Chiefs on Constitution Avenue, but both reflected that Donovan’s keen interest in visual presentation as an important practice.

Nor were the war room projects the only examples of Donovan’s personal fascination with presentation style. He was the driving force behind a set of giant 50” diameter globes that were given to President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The map on the sphere’s surface was prepared by OSS’s Map Division, which belonged not to the Visual Presentation branch but to Research and Analysis, and printed and mounted by the Weber Costello Company in Illinois. The globes themselves were fabricated from cherrywood and mounted on a set of rubber balls designed by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss on behalf of Visual Presentation. (One of the cartographers shared his recollections in an article in Imago Mundi, many years later.)

How significant was the work that Saarinen did during the war. With hindsight, “irreplaceable” seems a little much. But a big war demanded big plans and big spaces to make and interpret them, and Saarinen was part of that process. So were colleagues like Donal McLaughlin, who helped design the spaces and symbols for the conference that established the United Nations, and Dan Kiley, who did the same for the war crimes trials at Nuremberg.


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