Skeleton: St. Louis Army Ammunition Plant

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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.

15 thoughts on “Skeleton: St. Louis Army Ammunition Plant

  1. My family moved to Henner Ave. when I was 18 months old. Henner runs into Goodfellow one block north of Stratford Ave. at the west end of the city limits. Within a year or two the property from Natural Bridge Rd. to Stratford Ave. was turned into a public park that had a wading pool for local kids, Shortly after the park was finished, Dec. 7th, 1941 brought the start of WWII and the building of the small arms plant on ground the that included the park and extended to Union Blvd and Natural Bridge Rd. The noise from weapons testing at the plant caused my family to move into the city into the city in the summer of 1942 after I finished 2nd grade.

  2. I worked there aleoduring the Summer of 1967 and concur with your assessment. Not sure. Where the chemicals wouls be except the paint and fuel oil baths. I seem to recall that the interior of the shell being painted red and remember a rod going into the shell as it spun and was painted. I ask why the inside paint and was told it was to keep it from rusting until it was charged and the tip was attached. Have seen shells at gun show and they are red inside.

    Just had a tour of the GM Wentzville plant and they have a complete 105 in a display case. Projectile, shell and tip.

  3. Apparently, no one bothers to find out what was being manufactured in that big clam shelled roof building the author makes fun of, or the large buildings immediately surrounding it.

    Back in 1966-67, I was a new high school graduate and the Vietnam was was nearing its highest point. I knew I would be drafted if I didn’t get an educational deferment to attend college and, since there was no “all volunteer service” back then and you were a healthy male, you either “volunteered” for the USAF or one of the other Services or you would get your “greetings” letter from Uncle Sam when you turned 19. I was willing to go and I wasn’t afraid of military service, though I had no interest in slogging through the jungles of Vietnam, so I talked to my USAF recruiter. At the time, there were more people volunteering for the USAF (to avoid being drafted) than even the wartime Air Force needed. But, I has high scores on my aptitude tests, so the USAF was still very interested in me. I signed on but was told I might be waiting more than a year before I’d be called to duty and sent to basic.

    I heard Chevrolet was hiring at the Fisher Body plant in STL and I got a reasonably good paying, entry level job there. It wasn’t long before the newer employees were layed off but offered work at the “Chevrolet Shell Division” to work the new contract to build 105mm projectiles at the old Army Ammunition plant very close to the Chevy Plant. I became a Production Line Quality Control Inspector of 105 mm case hardened projectiles, the “bullet” part that gets shot out the barrel and explode.

    In the sixties,like the post WW-2 operations of that clamshell building, (which housed a forge and stamping machines), the end product was only the empty projectiles made of steel and brass. There was never any explosives installed at the STL plant at least not in the artillary shells, which was the ONLY deliverable product of the Chevrolet Shell Division contract.

    Those empty projectiles were placed into pallets (of around 50 (75 pound) projectiles each) and loaded into boxcars and shipped to the ammunition plant in Mcallister, Oklahoma where the hollow centers were filled with some type of explosive that was initially the approximately the consistency of toothpaste.

    I know this because we were required to watch “safety films” on a regular basis that showed is where our projectiles went when they left Saint Louis and how small “burrs” left inside the projectile case could result in the plastic liquid getting “unstable” and igniting, which had resulted in serious explosions on the “fill line” at Mcallister in the past. I don’t think that happened in the sixties because the safety films looked to be late 40’s to early ’50’s productions.

    I never, ever saw even one loaded projectile at the Chevrolet Shell complex and in my job I was assigned all over the various buildings. If there was contaminants involved, it was probably from the small arms (WW-2) days or maybe on the paint line, where the outside of the projectile was given a coat of olive drab paint. The inside of the projectile was not coated with paint.

    I worked at the Shell plant till Early May of 68 when I entered the USAF. I spent over 8 years on active duty USAF and another 15 years in the Reserve, retiring in early ’93.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  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 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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!!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.


  15. 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.

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