Early each morning, the buses and cars arrive at the St. Louis riverfront as they have done for nearly five decades. The tourists — some three million a year — stream out to see a gleaming stainless-steel arch that towers above the Mississippi River. They explore the underground museum, watch a short film about the Arch's construction, and climb aboard claustrophobic space-age capsules for a four-minute ride to the crest. They peer out of thick, narrow windows perched more than sixty stories high, nowhere near as tall as the tops of many modern skyscrapers but somehow more magical and terrifying because they are suspended in air. The experience is a little more than some people bargained for when they realize that there is nothing under them. Perhaps they grasp for the first time the power of basic geometry, which is the only thing keeping them from falling. A few may remember Leonardo da Vinci's definition: "An arch consists of two weaknesses which leaning one against the other make a strength." After they have taken some photographs, the visitors are carried back to the underground station where they can buy souvenirs. Once they emerge from below, most crane their heads one last time at the monument towering above them and wonder about its meaning.
Throughout, tourists are presented a mythic version of history. They are told of a Depression-riddled city that struggled to rebuild a wretched wasteland of abandoned buildings and warehouses. They learn how in 1935 the citizens of St. Louis approved a bond issue for a project commemorating Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. City leaders, responding to this expression of popular support, cleared the area of empty, "blighted" warehouses and waited patiently for the millions of promised federal funds. After postponements necessitated by World War II and the Korean War, the city embarked on an ambitious effort to rebuild the riverfront with a wonderful monument to westward expansion. Finished in 1965 the magnificent Gateway Arch (officially the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) transformed the city and gave the nation a timeless landmark that speaks to our democratic heritage.
When we think about a great monument or skyscraper or museum or cathedral, we seldom ask: What was there before? Who benefited from its construction? Who lost? What could have been? By exploring these questions, we find that the story of the Gateway Arch is more complicated than the account given to visitors. It involves political and economic power, short-sighted city planning, and decades of disputes over the historic riverfront. It includes more than visionary architects and civic leaders: local and national politicians, landlords, renters, bankers, real estate agents, construction workers, protestors, and citizens. Their motivations and actions often had little to do with promoting modern architecture or honoring the city's role in developing the republic.
Today, the Arch is a cherished national landmark and one of the most recognized structures on earth. It is revered for the way it transforms a simple curve into an awe-inspiring experience of place. A person approaching it by car or plane cannot help but marvel at its size and elegance. For interstate highway travelers in the Midwest, the Arch is one of the most memorable sights they will encounter.
The genius of the Gateway Arch is that it is both traditional and modern. The Romans built countless arches, and they were indispensable to Gothic architecture. The vast array of bridges, aqueducts, and churches whose arches have survived for centuries testify to the form's inherent durability. Yet the one in St. Louis manages to reinvent the idea, as if it were the very first one. We are surrounded by arches, yet there is only one Gateway Arch. It is disarmingly simple and extraordinarily complex, an unadorned geometric shape on an almost inhuman scale. Reaching 630 feet high, it is the largest American monument, taller than the Washington Monument, and is exactly as wide at the base as it is tall. The Arch weighs 43,000 tons, and its exterior contains 886 tons of stainless steel. Its interior holds 5,000 tons of regular steel as well as 6,238 cubic yards of concrete. In the event of high winds, the Arch is designed to sway eighteen inches at the top. Not all of the impressive figures are so enormous. To ensure that its two legs would meet precisely at the top, its builders could not veer more than 1/64-inch in pouring the two foundations.
Although the finished Arch was a collaborative product of several architects and engineers, it is essentially the creation of Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen. The design's monumentality matched the ego of its designer, a driven and obsessed man who was personally charming yet ruthless, supremely confident to a level somewhere well beyond arrogance, and also deeply insecure. By examining the personal and professional dynamics that inspired and haunted the architect, we can begin to understand the human element behind the stainless steel monolith. His father, Eliel, was a legendary architect who cast a looming shadow over his only son, and Eero wanted desperately to establish his own identity as a transformative designer. Winning the St. Louis architectural competition gave Eero the national recognition he craved, yet was not without frustration. Just days after the competition jury selected his entry, Saarinen was accused of stealing the design from an Italian architect who had proposed a grand arch in Rome as a memorial to Mussolini (the charge was never substantiated). His jubilation in winning the competition was tempered by more than a decade of disappointing delays. When he died, in 1961 at the age of fifty-one, he had designed some of the most imaginative buildings of his day. But his most cherished creation, an idea that started with pipe cleaners on his living room floor, remained unbuilt.
In 1935, in one of the earliest conversations about a proposed memorial on the St. Louis riverfront, former Secretary of War Newton Baker urged city and national leaders to proceed as if they were building a cathedral. Although the secular Gateway Arch carries none of the religious symbolism of Chartres or Sainte-Chapelle, it is tempting to think that their builders would have understood at least something of Saarinen's vision. The spires of the great cathedrals are visible for miles, and arches of varied and sophisticated design are necessary to their soaring interiors. In 1220, an anonymous traveler, having visited a newly built French cathedral, wrote: "The vault seems to converse with the winged birds; it spreads broad wings of its own, and like a flying creature jostles the clouds, while yet resting on its solid pillars. . . . The shafts themselves stand soaring and lofty, their finish is clear and resplendent, their order graceful and geometrical." Like the creators of the Arch, the builders of the great cathedrals spent a fortune, were required to think anew, and needed many years to realize their plans. They also had more on their minds than divine aspirations: they hoped the cathedrals would bring fame, prestige, and wealth to their towns.
All great public structures tell us what a society values. Memorials are explicit statements of the events and people a society believes it is important to retain in the public memory. Lenin's Tomb, the Lincoln Memorial, and the statues of soldiers in courthouse squares each convey a specific memory. The Arch is more a commemoration of a concept: westward expansion was not a single event bounded in time and space but an idea, an engine of American ambition. The structure's abstraction reflects the abstraction of what it commemorates.
Yet to see the Gateway Arch only as a symbol of westward expansion misses a larger point. Its monumentality, its sleek modernism, and its visual power are hallmarks of a different cultural marker. The Arch informs us of the wealth and audacity of the United States in the mid-twentieth century. It is the product of a supremely self-confident and rich society; conceived after the Arsenal of Democracy had won World War II, and built as the nation planned to go to the Moon. It is a symbol of affluence and influence, a bold statement of national strength.
But the Arch also represents a significant chapter in the history of American cities. Its origins and construction allow us to ask: Why do our cities look the way they do? In this vein, the Arch is more than a symbol; it is also a symptom. Tourists and the local community experience it in different ways. The Gateway Arch is an extended cautionary tale that emerged from a grand and ultimately failed experiment in urban planning. This too is part of its history and meaning — part of the less triumphant side. Just over a century ago, St. Louis considered itself the potential equal of New York City, perhaps even the site of a relocated American capital. Today it has less than half the population it had in 1950. The history of the Arch, and of the contested ground on which it stands, is deeply intertwined with the history of St. Louis, as well as East St. Louis, Illinois, directly across the river. Long before Saarinen conceived his design, city leaders debated what to do with the land adjacent to the river. It was a struggle that started with the city's birth as a modest trading post. By the early twentieth century, the area was dotted with warehouses and small businesses, some struggling and some thriving. It contained apartments and houses of various sizes, as well as a number of historic buildings, including some of the best examples of cast-iron structures in the nation. The creators of the Arch shared the belief, widely held in the mid-twentieth century, that the future of the city lay in its friendliness to automobiles. The ideology of mid-century urban planning held that downtowns would thrive to the extent that they were accessible and navigable by out-of-town visitors traveling in cars. Attractions such as sports arenas and convention centers, highways leading into and through downtowns, and vast parking towers were seen as the way to revive struggling urban cores and connect them to the more vibrant suburbs. Older modes of urban life — historic buildings, getting around on foot, dense neighborhoods where people lived, worked, and played in close proximity — were considered outdated relics that stood in the way of progress.
St. Louis, like many other American cities, embraced the mid-twentieth=century answer to urban decay. Yet unlike any other city, St. Louis turned also to what became an architectural masterpiece to lure people downtown. The Arch is a paradox: on the one hand, it has become one of the country's great tourist attractions and one of its most successful and inspiring works of art. On the other hand, just blocks away, one can walk past empty buildings and dreary lots. Though its overt function is to commemorate the city's past, the Arch's design and underlying purpose look toward the future: it was meant to renew the city that surrounds it. The steady procession of people leaving St. Louis is another marker of urban decay, and the Gateway Arch helped speed the decline.
Cities and monuments are not created overnight. They are the product of longstanding political, economic, and cultural forces. Over time, people in power made choices and implemented policies that had profound consequences. The results, reflected in our built environment, were sometimes glorious, sometimes disastrous. In uncovering the bloody history of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, David Harvey wrote: "The building hides its secrets in sepulchral silence. Only the living, cognizant of this history ... can truly disinter the mysteries that lie entombed there and thereby rescue that rich experience from the deathly silence of the tomb." That sentiment extends from Paris to St. Louis. Some architectural landmarks have more to tell us than meets the eye.
From The Gateway Arch by Tracy Campbell. Copyright 2013 by Tracy Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.