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Arch of Esthetic Triumph



Rob Hardy


If you drive through St. Louis, Missouri, you cannot help noticing the magnificent stainless steel arch that rises 630 feet over a bank of the Mississippi River. It is a unique and beautiful building (or perhaps a sculpture), and historian Tracy Campbell admires it as much as anyone. This is despite his knowing many grubby and ill-considered moves that led finally to the Gateway Arch's completion in 1965. His history, The Gateway Arch: A Biography (Yale University Press, part of their fine "Icons of America" series) shows that there is a great deal to admire esthetically and technologically about the arch, while there is much to disdain about the civic deals that brought it to completion. As a warts-and-all biography, this is entertaining history. 




St. Louis was a booming city through the 19th century, with the Mississippi river full of steamboats carrying goods and passengers who were headed west. These settlers were going out to the wilds of the Louisiana Purchase by which Jefferson had hugely expanded the nation in 1804. A century later, St. Louis would host the Olympics, a World's Fair, and the Democratic National Convention. St. Louis boosters would have had reasons to think that the city was on its way up to become a major Midwestern metropolis, but it didn't work out that way. Steamboats gave way to rail, so commerce went to Chicago instead. In 1876, leaders of St. Louis set themselves economically independent from the county around them, which meant that as the decades went by and the surrounding regions prospered, the city could take no advantage of the taxes from these suburbs.  




The riverfront continued to decline, although plenty of the offices and warehouses were of unique cast-iron construction that in the view of preservationists needed to be saved. The business owners, though, were interested in getting rid of their properties at a good price. A $7.5 million bond issue for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the grand plan that was eventually to include the arch) was passed in 1935, but the passage involved massive election fraud, with hundreds of supposed voters registered, for instance, as living at a barber shop. Washington kicked in $22.5 million in a deal that FDR approved after the mayor of the city promised him votes in the 1936 election. The businessmen carried the day, offloading their unwanted holdings to the federal government for a bloated value, all the while insisting that they had high minded aims of job creation and memorializing the expansion to the west. Those cynical about how government and business work together will find much confirmation here. 




The story of the design and building of the arch are more, well, uplifting. The riverfront property bought for the project turned into an enormous municipal parking lot, in which state it stayed through World War II, when monies had to go elsewhere. After the war, the city held a competition for the monument, and the winning entry came from a young Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen. He was an architect's son, and his career can be understood as a way of besting his father. He was a callous husband, but drove himself hard in his profession, the start of which was given a boost by his winning arch design. He would go on to design the TWA Flight Center at Kennedy Airport and the main terminal at Dulles, among many other commissions, and his pedestal chairs would become staples of 1950s design that have continued to be considered stylish. 




Saarinen competed with over 170 designers for the prize, which was $40,000; in addition, this was felt to be the most prestigious architectural competition of the time. Though he submitted a proposal for a freestanding arch, and the judges responded to his vision, he wound up changing the design considerably. He first thought it would be made of concrete, only later changing it to iron with prestressed concrete inside, with an outer cladding of stainless steel. He also initially thought the cross-section of the arch should be a rectangle, but changed it to the much more beautiful triangle. There has been confusion over what sort of curve the arch describes, as Saarinen had referred to it as a parabola, one of the conic sections familiar to high school students. It is closer to a catenary arch, one that is an upside down version of the way a chain hangs. Even that isn't quite correct, as he flattened the curve some, settling on one that simply "looked right." 




There were changes that had to be made in Saarinen's design of such a novel construction, but by 1961 funding to start had been found. Saarinen shortly thereafter died of a brain tumor and so never got to see or oversee the project. Nothing like the arch had been built before; it didn't have a single straight line in it, and none of the sections put on top of the previous ones had exactly the same shape, so there was a good deal of ad-libbing on site. The way to make an elevator go up such a curve was worked out late, and the inspiration was a Ferris wheel, small containers of people with their seats on pivots so that going up at the arch's different angles didn't matter. As the engineers raised the two legs of the arch, they worried that if the giant structures were not exactly matched, they would not meet properly at the top. Every night after installing a section, engineers would measure exactly how high each leg had gotten; the measurements had to be done at night so that the sun would not distort the metal. As it was, when it came time to put the "capstone" piece on the arch in a ceremony in 1965, the sun bore more on the southern leg than the northern one, causing a disastrous difference of ten inches between the legs. A fire hose was sent up to cool the hotter leg, and the arch was completed.  




The arch is the tallest monument built in the United States and the world's tallest arch, and thousands of visitors each year pay $10 for a trip to the top. It is the showplace for St. Louis, but Campbell shows that the decades of plans for the arch to be the focus of a revitalized city have not worked out. St. Louis would like for out-of-towners to visit the arch, and they do; it is a huge success in that way. But it cannot promote sustained economic development, any more than can the sports stadiums, urban malls, and theme parks that St. Louis and other cities have tried. Campbell makes the comparison with the gorgeous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Tourists flock to see Gehry's building and the exhibits inside, but the museum can only provide a few jobs; Bilbao has yet to figure out a steady economic foundation, and neither has St. Louis. Campbell writes, "Today it would be unthinkable to level forty square blocks of an American city to erect a nonutilitarian sculpture." Urban economics aside, the arch is a spectacular and unique monument, and as one of the judges of the original competition for the monument said, the arch "manages to convey a 'particularly happy' feeling." Campbell's book, while it tells plenty about the building's darker side, helps us appreciate the complexities of the monument's simple beauty. 




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