As Gateway Arch Turns 50, Its Message Gets Reframed The Arch was originally built to honor St. Louis' role in western expansion, and its museum is focused on the experience of white American settlers. Its new museum will include different perspectives.

As Gateway Arch Turns 50, Its Message Gets Reframed

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Fifty years ago today, the St. Louis Arch was completed. It looms over the city and the Mississippi River - 630 feet high and 630 feet wide. It looks about the same as always, though perceptions of it have changed. Here's St. Louis Public Radio's Camille Phillips.

CAMILLE PHILLIPS, BYLINE: I'm standing at the base of the Gateway Arch here in downtown St. Louis. To my left, stainless steel block upon stainless steel block curve up into the skyline 630 feet above mean. It's rainy today and the top of the Arch is blurred with mist. Millions of visitors have flocked here each year since it was built 50 years ago. They can take a tram up to the top to see the view. On windy days like today, the top of the Arch sways 18 inches from side to side. The sounds of construction your hear are renovations at both the Arch grounds and the museum.

GARY DORSEY: That's what the Arch represents, brings people together, a variety of people, just to come out. It's a symbol of fun, a symbol of relaxation, a symbol of everybody coming together and having a good time.

PHILLIPS: That's Gary Dorsey of East St. Louis who brought his grandchildren to a festival celebrating the anniversary on Saturday. Dorsey says the Arch has a unifying effect for the region. But for all the wonder and appreciation the monument inspires, some see the message and history of the Arch as divisive. For instance, the arch was built to honor St. Louis' role in westward expansion, a time when manifest density was used to push Native Americans and Mexicans out of their land. The museum under the Arch is being redesigned to include that perspective. National Park Service historian Bob Moore says the original museum left a lot of people out of the story.

BOB MOORE: Why did they feel that they could go out and just take these lands? And basically they believed it was their God-given right.

PHILLIPS: Racial inequality is another shadow some see cast by the Arch. University of Kentucky historian Tracy Campbell says African-American neighborhoods were razed when the U.S. government annexed 40 acres of historic downtown St. Louis to create the Arch grounds. It was the height of the Depression and civic leaders considered the area blighted.

TRACY CAMPBELL: I started looking at the records to see who owned this property and I come to find out there's a lot of banks, there's a lot of realty companies that own this property, and they could make money out from the gate well above appraisal.

PHILLIPS: Soon after construction began in 1963, civil rights activist Percy Green staged a sit-in 125 feet up a construction ladder to protest what he called unfair hiring practices. Then there's the whole why is it here issue. If you travel 250 miles west of St. Louis, you'll find lots of Kansas city residents who argue their town deserves the title of the Gateway to the West. Ralph Monaco is past president of the Kansas City area historical society. He says that St. Louis' claim to being Gateway to the West traces back to Lewis and Clark.

RALPH MONACO: But it only has its basis in fact through the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of the territorial days of Missouri. And then by the time you get to the 1840s, it's definitely Jackson County. I mean, it's definitely western Missouri. It's not St. Louis.

PHILLIPS: Most wagon trains left from the Kansas City area, but Arch historian Bob Moore says a lot of the travelers first stopped in St. Louis to buy their supplies. Fifty years after the Arch was built, it's anniversary has inspired park officials to take a closer look at what the monument represents. When the museum reopens in 2017, it may be known simply as the Arch Museum instead of the Museum of Westward Expansion. For NPR News, I'm Camille Phillips in St. Louis.

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