But today, hidden behind a high-security wall, Woolwich's Royal Arsenal - one of the finest collections of military buldings in the world - is deserted and dilapidated.
Its future will be highlighted this week when the simmering row between the heritage and defence lobbies over the disintegration of some of Britain's best military buildings spills over into a hearing of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.
Heritage experts are appalled at the condition of historic barracks, forts, docks and factories owned by the Ministry of Defence.
Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, will tell the committee hearing that radical action must be taken on buildings of architectural and historic importance.
They include the Royal Arsenal, RAF buildings in Biggin Hill, Hendon and Cardington, and the Peninsula Barracks, Winchester.
It will be the third time in three months that the MoD has come under such intense fire over the condition of the buildings. In February Mr Stevens attacked the ministry's stewardship when he addressed the Commons Heritage Committee, and two weks ago Sir Hugh Cubitt, chairman of English Heritage's London Advisory Committee, described the state of the Arsenal as a 'disgrace'.
Redundant buildings have become dilapidated as the MoD comes under Treasury pressure to shed its stock of properties it no longer requires. According to the conservation group Save Britain's Heritage, the ministry spends little on maintenance once buildings are empty.
Mr Stevens will warn the defence committee that the Government must take strategic decisions 'which are imaginative and radical' to save the buildings.
Woolwich's Royal Arsenal is a prime example of a site needing a radical urgent solution before some of the 18 listed buildings on the 76-acre site are beyond repair. The Royal Laboratory, completed in 1696, is already on English Heritage's at-risk register, as is the Grand Store. Other buildings used for making guns, powders, ammunition and carriages are now empty.
Several plans are being drawn up for the use of the buildings for academic and research purposes, but they depend on the MoD agreeing to contribute towards the costly restoration and repair work.
One building - Sir John Vanbrugh's brass foundry - has already been restored and is being used to store archives of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
The University of Greenwich wants to take over the Grand Store building to house its laboratories.
Although the MoD has offered the building for sale for pounds 1, the university's surveyors estimate it will cost pounds 30m to make the building structurally sound and fit it out.
The university deputy vice- chancellor, John McWilliam, said: 'The Arsenal is an embarrassment of riches, yet so much of it is in an awful state of repair.'
Another part of the Arsenal will house a military museum if the Royal Artillery Gunner Heritage Appeal, which has so far raised pounds 2m, succeeds in collecting a further pounds 8m following the appeal's official launch on 11 May.
This week, a report into Woolwich Arsenal commissioned by the Government's regeneration arm, English Partnerships, will be published, warning that a short-term sell- off approach will not work.
It recommends its long- term use as a major historical archive, but says that the MoD must remain liable for the multi-million-pound repair bill. But an MoD spokesman said: 'We are not going to spend a lot of money on renovation.'
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