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Super Secret Government Work Happens In Some Of St. Louis' Oldest Buildings

It’s a top national security facility in St. Louis that’s flown under the radar for years.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is hidden in plain sight on more than 20 acres that lie between the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and the Mississippi River. There are roughly 2,500 NGA employees there, working on highly secretive projects. The maps, charts and strategic intelligence they provide are used by the president, national policy makers and military leaders.

Credit (Brent Jones, St. Louis Public Radio)
The NGA complex in St. Louis is between the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and the Mississippi River.

Yet all that high-tech work is taking place in what was once the only arsenal west of the Mississippi River. It was built in 1827.

"It’s arguably one of the most important historic sites in St. Louis, possibly in Missouri," said Andrew Weil, executive director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

So, when news broke earlier this year that the NGA was planning to move off the site, Weil and other preservationists took notice.

"It’s almost a 200-year-old military institution just south of downtown, yet I don’t know anyone who’s been on the property, and most people don’t know it’s here," he said.

Credit (Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
The fence outside the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at 3200 South Second Street, which was once a federal arsenal.

A rare tour

St. Louis Public Radio and Weil were able to take a tour of the facility, although mostly just on its campus outside. But before we could do that, the NGA required drivers’ licenses, social security numbers and the serial number of my digital recorder.

Security is nothing new here.

On the fence surrounding the NGA, each brick post is topped with four small cannon balls, a reminder of the place's days as an arsenal. It played a crucial role in the Civil War, producing small arms and munitions. Confederate sympathizers plotted to take the arsenal, leading to St. Louis' only skirmish in the war, called the Camp Jackson Affair.

“It’s lost in time now. Most people know Arsenal Street, but they don’t get the connection of what Arsenal Street means,” said Jim Mohan.

Mohan is the manager of the NGA museum, a place that’s mostly used for new employee orientation. It has a model of Osama bin Laden’s compound the NGA made ahead of the Navy SEAL raid. It also houses a three-dimensional map of the moon that the NGA developed for NASA in the 1960s. 

Credit (courtesy NGA)
The sun dial was dedicated in 1859 and was the original chronometer for the arsenal. The fence surrounding it is made up of ordnance guns and rifle barrels.

Quite a bit of the arsenal's history remains on the campus, including a wide parade ground where soldiers once marched and a sun dial completed in 1859. Several limestone buildings constructed in the 1830s dot the campus. They’re among the oldest buildings in the city.

The entire facility is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mohan said the agency nominated the facility back in the 1970s in the hope of gaining some funding for preservation. No money came following the designation, but he said they’ve worked hard to maintain the building’s historic exteriors.

"Almost all the interiors are changed. None of them are the same as they were in the 1800s," Mohan said.

The limestone buildings now house the NGA’s visitors’ center, a credit union, a fitness center and the inspector general’s office.  Most of the agency’s work -- or "production" as they call it -- occurs in a huge former warehouse built in 1918. Two more wings were added in the 1960s and 1980s.

End of an era

While the facility has been used continuously by the federal government since 1827, NGA officials say they can no longer adapt older buildings. Spokeswoman Julia Collins said the NGA needs more robust IT infrastructure and more collaborative work spaces.

Credit (courtesy NGA)
The NGA's visitor center is among several original limestone buildings. It was built sometime in the 1840s.

"As most industries know, things move much more rapidly than they used to. So, for us to respond to a world crisis we might need to swing from anywhere from a two to a 50-person team," she said.

Theagency will choose a new site in the St. Louis metropolitan area sometime in 2016. The move will take place in 2021, at the earliest. The actual owner of the old arsenal's land is the U.S. Air Force which, Collins said, will continue to care for the property after the NGA leaves.

Landmarks’ Andrew Weil is already making inquiries with the National Parks Service and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to take over the property and turn it into a historic site.

"We’re fortunate there is so much time, because it really allows for a thoughtful planning process," he said.

At the same time, Weil admitted he’s a little nervous.

"The NGA and the U.S. military have been fantastic stewards of the property for going on 200 years now," he said. "With them leaving the ball’s going to be passed off to another player and hopefully another player will take as good of care of it."

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.