ST. LOUIS • In the front parlor of a century-old mansion south of downtown sits a scale model of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The model was used to brief U.S. generals before military forces raided the compound and killed the terrorist mastermind.
Nearby is the now-famous photo of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with her hand over her mouth, watching video of the top-secret mission unfold. Before them on the table are the maps created by the National Geospatial-Intelligence agency that aided the hunt.
The red-brick house, which isn’t open to the public, serves as the agency’s museum, packed with objects and artifacts from a century of spying and mapmaking, ranging from images used to brief President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to a model of Mount St. Helens after an eruption removed most of its north face in 1980.
The house was built in 1907 for the Jefferson Barracks commander on the grounds of the old St. Louis Arsenal, one of the oldest continually operating military installations in the United States. The land now houses the western operations of the NGA, an arm of the Department of Defense that handles satellite and mapping intelligence.
The NGA says the site is too old and no longer feasible for its high-tech, top-secret missions. This month, the agency announced it will build a new facility at one of six locations in the St. Louis area. That move will leave behind a vacant campus of buildings, some of which date to around 1830, and potentially silence the military parade grounds that were once coveted by both the North and South during the Civil War.
Julia Collins, a spokeswoman for the agency in St. Louis, said it “is too early to say with any certainty what will become” of the historic site. The final decision will be up to the Air Force, which owns the ground.
Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, said the site tucked along the Mississippi River would be a great place for redevelopment.
“It’s just not a great location for a spy agency,” Rainford said.
The ground — in the shadows of the hulking Anheuser-Busch brewery — contains relics of a history older than that of the NGA or the Air Force; one that encompasses westward expansion, the Black Hawk War, the Civil War and a defining point in Missouri history.
The stretch of land is on the National Register of Historic Places and contains about a dozen buildings which have been retrofitted to assist the NGA’s classified work. Because of that, visitors are rare. The NGA recently gave the Post-Dispatch a walking tour of the facilities.
There is the 1840s era limestone visitor center, which was used to store ammunition for the Civil War. The NGA’s brick-columned corporate communications office was built in 1853 as a timber storehouse. The agency’s western headquarters building is a former warehouse for the Army Quartermaster Corp. used in the World War I era.
The arsenal dates to 1827, when it quickly became one of the largest in the country, supplying Army and militia officers protecting pioneers in the American West.
The NGA recognizes the site’s history. Jim Mohan, an NGA employee who guided the tour, said he hopes to one day open the facility to more visitors so they can learn about one of the state’s most historic spaces that few know.
And much of that history involves the American Civil War.
In the early months of 1861, secession-minded Missouri Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson plotted to seize the arsenal and its weapons for the Confederacy. U.S. Rep. Francis Blair, a Republican at that time and close ally of President Abraham Lincoln, teamed with fiery Union Army Capt. Nathaniel Lyon to protect the arsenal.
“It would have been devastating to the Union if the arsenal fell on Confederate hands,” Mohan said.
The armory contained vital supplies for wars: more than 35,000 muskets, 45 tons of powder and 11 cannon.
Jackson mustered the state militia and instructed Gen. Daniel Frost to move upon the arsenal. Blair recruited volunteers, many of them pro-Union German immigrants. Lyon marched them and his soldiers on May 10, 1861, to the militia camp, on a site that now is St. Louis University’s east campus, and forced the militia to surrender.
As Lyon prepared to march his captives east on Olive Street, a mob formed and someone fired a shot. Soldiers returned fire and more than 30 civilians and soldiers were killed. But St. Louis and the arsenal remained in Union control.
After the war, the arsenal was folded into Jefferson Barracks and its grounds became a tourist destination.
“No place in St. Louis, or even in the West, possesses more interest to the traveler than the old St. Louis Arsenal,” the Post-Dispatch wrote in 1875. “All the buildings are neat, and their interiors are models of cleanliness. The site of the ‘Arsenal’ is the most beautiful of any on the river, and the luxuriant grass plats, in front of which is a high ... iron fence through the pickets of which the grand Mississippi may be viewed and the swell and ebb of city life may be entirely abandoned.”
Today many of those buildings still stand near the appropriately named Arsenal Street and Lyon Park, now secured by government checkpoints and fencing.
Various Army tenants served on the grounds until the facility was transferred to the Air Force, which moved a precursor to the NGA (the Aeronautical Chart Service) from downtown St. Louis to the arsenal campus.
Jim Prahlow, a social studies teacher at Lutheran North High School, said he knew very little about the arsenal site until two of his students did a project on its history. Prahlow said he hopes the federal government or the city can open it up and turn the grounds into a museum after the agency’s move.
“Once you destroy something and get rid of it, very few people know anything about it,” Prahlow said. “That whole area was really significant.”
Officials have time to decide the campus’ fate. The NGA isn’t expected to move to a new facility until 2021 or 2022 — almost 200 years after the arsenal’s history began.