WASHINGTON -- The birthplace of modern American espionage has been hiding -- as befits a former nest of spies -- in plain sight.
The old headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services is a little cluster of stone and brick buildings clearly visible to anyone walking out of the Kennedy Center or zooming around the E Street Expressway. But few know that the Beaux Arts campus is where Gen. "Wild Bill" Donovan and his band of OSS agents invented the spycraft that helped win World War II, the pistol pencils, fake passports and the propaganda broadcasts that led enemy soldiers to doubt their causes (and sometimes their wives).
After the war, the compound became the first home of OSS's successor agency, the CIA. And yet even to its neighbors, the spot's remarkable pedigree as the place that bedeviled Hitler and crafted the Cold War might as well be stamped "top secret."
"I had no idea about its history," said Patrick Kennedy, who lives just three blocks from the site at 2430 E St. NW that is known variously as Navy Hill and Potomac Hill.
But if obscurity was good for the cloak-and-dagger days, it may be bad in an era when public attention can be the best protection from a bulldozer. It was only after the State Department announced plans to redevelop the site for additional office space that OSS veterans learned no one had ever bothered to gain historic status for their home. Rumors spread that the structures could be demolished, so some aging spooks have come in from the cold of retirement to fight one more mission for the old HQ, joining with local preservationists to save at least some of it for posterity.
"I thought it was outrageous," former OSS and CIA agent Hugh Montgomery said of the possible loss of the offices that once directed his secret operations behind enemy lines. "I think we all assumed it was already protected."
Mr. Montgomery, 90, who recently retired from a 63-year career in intelligence, testified at several meetings of the D.C. Preservation League and helped compile information for the league's application for historic landmark status. Several other surviving OSS vets and their descendants have also contributed memories, documents and photographs to the effort.
The General Services Administration, which is directing the building project, says fears of tearing down the site are unfounded. During a recent tour, agency officials said they are committed to protecting the heritage not just of the OSS headquarters but other historic properties on Potomac Hill, including the original Navy Observatory and buildings that housed the precursor to the National Institutes of Health.