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  • Skeleton: St. Louis Army Ammunition Plant

    Posted on November 25th, 2006 Toby Weiss 12 comments
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    Goodfellow Blvd. & Hwy. 70
    City of St. Louis, MO
    For several years there’s been talk of taking down the Munitions Plant, but the grounds are rumored to be so heavily infested with numerous chemical violations that remediation was an expensive and scary proposition. The City of St. Louis finally selected a developer in 2004, but still the hulking, iconic building sat motionless.

    Motionless, until recently. Crews have come in and are methodically stripping the Transite panels off the monolithic shed with the gaping-jaw roof. Removed of its cladding, its bones showing to the world, it now looks like the carcass of the turkeys we carved on Thanksgiving Day.

    This building has long been the hulking giant atop the hill, watching the ant-like cars crawl below on Highway 70. One need not be told what the building once was to intuitively understand that it was an important industrial building, devoid of frivolity, intent on humorless production of hardcore seriousness. But stripped of its gunmetal sheathing, the building is now curiously fragile and delicate… an elephant at the ice capades, a rhinoceros ballerina…

    To anyone born after World War 2, this building Has Always Been. Its prominent placement at the city’s northern boundary, at the peak of a hill, with its Erector Set roof roaring like a dinosaur makes it impossible to overlook, hard to ignore. Being a government building – a factory dedicated to war accessories – gave it an austerity and mystery that demanded respect and distance. You had to have a pass to get in while it was open, and once it was shuttered you needed a love of danger to risk wallowing in deadly leftover weaponry chemicals to trespass the barbwire-topped chain link fence boundary.

    For me, this was a building I always took for granted; it would always be there because we’re too afraid to take it down. So I was content to let others explore it. I was grateful that others took the time to document it.

    But upon seeing its metal skeleton exposed to the world, I now wanted to be near it, and to document that the seemingly-impenetrable was, in fact, penetrated, vulnerable and vanishing.

    So, through the hole in the fence I went, and the rumors are true: after about 20 minutes, my lips and fingertips were tingling and then numb; shortness of breath and cottonmouth followed close behind. It was the same reaction as from – years ago – traipsing around down inside the River Des Peres, mere days before they posted the yellow warning signs about chemical contamination = illness.

    Finally being up close to the naked military manufacturing giant erased its imposing qualities. Instead, the human factor became the dominating theme. People are able to dismantle it piece by piece. Tiny little doors everywhere for people to pass through. Countless ladders and catwalks for people to climb. Hundreds of pendant lights and windows so people could see.

    I was most enchanted with the pair of pedestrian entry gates on Goodfellow Blvd (above). It’s proof of a time – way back in the day – when St. Louis had so many public transportation options that more people entered the plant on foot than by car.

    Each entry has a tiny little guard station, with a half door option, and an elaborate stair rail system for both safety and function.

    It’s a tiny place for an always-on-duty guard to check your ID. Looking at it, I got images of steaming cups of coffee and a hearty “good morning!” to a line of familiar faces.

    And the 3 rows dividing the stairs are capped with a special well for other guards to stand in and check IDs while remaining out of the flow of foot traffic. I love the concept of guards – back then – being slim enough to fit within the metal tube “cup holder.”

    There is also a guard house at the driveway entry off Goodfellow. As the years went on, I picture the foot-traffic entrances seeing less and less activity, maybe having to let go of some of the guards, as most everyone was now coming to work via automobile. This became a busy spot, thus needing a much bigger cottage to house all those steaming cups of coffee…

    Note the old fashioned “keep away” sign…

    And, of course, the sternly worded warnings that backed up the feel of the architecture.
    This particular area of town was once our city’s most powerful evidence of modern progress. Just down the street from here (at Natural Bridge and Union) stands the now-abandoned General Motors Plant, built of the finest post-WW2 industrial modernism stock. These 2 complexes, along with healthy handfuls of other industrial and executive buildings exemplified the promise of American know-how and manufacturing might. We had just made the world safe from evil, and at the dividing line between city & county, we looked toward a bright future of benevolent superiority.

    Contrast what once was to how this same area is today, and take a look at the sign above, tacked onto lumber just inside the fence surrounding the Munitions Plant. What does that actually mean? Is it saying something that I just don’t understand? Or is it just more empty propaganda? Long ago, the government meant something, and now it’s a mockery, and I get the entire timeline right here, at the expired military complex…

    I read that thing a number of times, trying to figure out what it was getting at, and then I looked around at the desolation. The litter is literally 4-inches thick along all curbs, the roads haven’t been repaved in long past a decade or so. Every building, business and home reinforces that this part of town is past the point of abandoned.

    So, the city found a developer for this site, and this developer put up a sign. It’s a heavy vinyl banner, with plain red vinyl lettering saying there are plenty of opportunities on this site, give us a call. But one of the cords holding one of the ends up on the chain link broke long ago, and it’s folded over, thus unreadable. They have no other signs anywhere else on the property. Nor does the developer even mention this project on its website. Granted, the demolition of the building has only just begun, and guessing from my dizziness, the remediation has yet to happen, which could add another year or more till the land is ready.

    I was glad to have finally met this building face to face, and to have absorbed the last remnants of what it was before it disappears completely. But I left with an uncomfortable sense of sadness because something once so omnipresent and powerful – a building and an area – has been reduced to neglected nothingness, its remains sprinkled with a fine powdered sugar of vague promises. And the wind now blows trash through the plant’s skeletal remains… As a show of respect, I hope the building comes down relatively quick, because it’s kind of embarrassing to see it in its underwear.

    The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered this story several days after me.

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    12 Responses to “Skeleton: St. Louis Army Ammunition Plant”

    1. Great post, love the images. For me it is the row of modern brick warehouse buildings just behind this that I will miss greatly. Although I must admit getting a big grin on my face as I see the lovely shape of this structure when I drive by on I-70, yes it will be missed too.

      It is so sad how we’ve treated our environment. Amazing that a place that has not seen chemicals in decades still makes someone sick just passing through. And now the site’s next life will be that as an auto-centric big box development — fitting that it will continue contributing to an unhealthy planet.

    2. I worked as a contractor for the US Postal Service in a government complex near this plant. I believe it’s across the street. We were also on Goodfellow. I was working for the US Postal Service.

      We didn’t know it was a munitions plant. We thought it was a prison or something.

      -joe

    3. Contrary to popular belief, the property is not heavily contaminated; the Army cleaned up the PCB and Dioxin contamination in the soil almost four years ago, and human health was never threatened. Minor contamination remains under the slab of the clamshell building, as well as some underground tank issues. These will be resolved in the coming months.

      I don’t understand the sentimental romanticism that some attach to the property, although I do understand it was an important local employer during times of military conflict. I think the property was used to manufacture a lot of pain and death and it will go a long way in healing the spirit of the place to redevelop it in a manner that benefits the neighborhood.

    4. I do hope the contamination has also been resolved under the slabs! I work in the warehouse next door and have been listening to the horrible sounds of machines pecking away at those slabs for over a week now and there is no end in sight!! Get done already!!

    5. Wow, thank you so much for these pic’s. My mother worked in this plant during the war and never had the opportunity to know much about the plant other than her stories. Now it is gone but only in structure, thanks to your work.

    6. I grew up in Jennings just east of the plant. My grandfather lived on Plover across 70 from the plant and worked there making munitions. Later as a child, I would ask him about the shed, the roof and all of its mystery. he said the roof was made to contol dust and heat. He said that one of his jobs was to test sampes of firing caps for the shells. I always wanted to explore that place.

      I can see that some dont understand the “sentimental romanticism” but when you grow up near such an icon and hear stories about it, you cant help but have a special place in your mind for the memories. That building will always remind me of my grandpa.

      Surely it was way more contaminated than allowed to be reported. The contaminents that remained at Lambert and Weldon Springs, Times Beach and Doe Run haunt us forever. Thanks for the site. -Brian

    7. My mother worked there, as did my grandmother, I think. Both died relatively young. I suffer from heavy metal poisons that, perhaps, I had from birth. The Great Claw is gone, but lives on–for now.

    8. RE: “I think the property was used to manufacture a lot of pain and death and it will go a long way in healing the spirit of the place to redevelop it in a manner that benefits the neighborhood.”

      Good golly, don’t they teach what WWII was about anymore in schools? It stopped a lot of pain and death would be more correct.

    9. My mother and father worked there at the beginning of the war. They met there where he introduced himself on a break and the romance began after a courtly dinner one weekend. He lived further away than she so he was on the public bus before it came by her place. He then gave her his seat when she got on and off to work they went. My mom said she packed .30 cal loose in cardboad and also clips full in wooded boxes I think.

      It holds a special place for her. Their life began there while trying to work out of the depression and do something to defend the country. My dad joined the Navy only a few months after working there. My mom joined too about a month later. They ended up married as Navy personnel at the Chapel on Chicago piers in 43. There was a big picture of it in the Chicago paper of which I have a copy. My dad joined the Marines after his clip in the Navy. He loved the military and the Corps especially. A very loving family man he was devoted to us, his neighborhood and community in Santa Ana Calif. where I grew up.

      we lost him at only 35 years in his sleep a very young Master Sergeant. A wonderful story for both of them having started in the little towns of Jacksonville, Ill and Louisianna, Mo.

      To those who think it is a place of death and violence your blinders are on too tight and your reading far too limited. No one wanted to do it. My father’s generation did not relish what had to happen. They were prepared to pay the price as other demonstrated they were prepared to make us pay if we proved unresolved. This equation has proved itself true througout history before and since WWII. Do all you can to prevent but if others prove unwilling let them make no mistake of your resolve and the price they will pay. My parents had friends too who actually did not come back due to someone else’s violence.

    10. Another building that I will never see in the flesh again. Yes, it was ugly, built for war, etc., but it still was part of my memory. I spent the first 19 years of my life in St. Louis, but I’ve lived outside of St. Louis for the last 20 years, and it is almost like another planet.

      As I get older I recognize that it isn’t only people who we lose but the landscapes as well; Cormac McCarthy writes something to this effect: the truth is that once things are gone they aren’t coming back.

    11. A final note on contamination: the Army did an extensive cleanup in the early 2000s before the property was transferred to SLDC in 2006. One really nasty building just south of the clamshell building was full of PCBs and was demolished and cleaned up. The City agreed as part of the transfer to complete the cleanup, which it did, mostly asbestos. All records for both phases of cleanup are public documents that anyone can read.

      The old days of covering things up and burying them are pretty much gone. The DOD is taking care of its obligations before letting land be reused. They have to – nobody would touch it these days if they didn’t.

      I am very skeptical that numb fingers, shortness of breath and cottonmouth were caused by chemicals. There was nothing on the site at that time that could have caused that.

      Great building, great history, sorry to see it go.

    12. my mother had a beauty shop acrose frcm the plant and some times my mother would take me to work with her because my grand mother had things to do that day i stood on the side walk and watch the tank shells come down the conveyer line glowing red hotat night i could hear them test the 50 cal shell as i layed in bed we had a serch light inthe back yard of the house we only lived 7 blocks from the plant and a air raid warden who lived on our block we would have black out at times as drills thank you

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