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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Gateway Arch--St. Louis, Missouri

Eero Saarinen's St. Louis Gateway arch at sunset.
Every city needs its symbol. Some, such as Washington D.C. have more than their share. Other cities rather than having a symbol consider themselves badly in need of one, such as Columbus, Ohio, the capital city of my home state. That was the case in the 1930s with the important river city of St. Louis, Missouri. Historically the city had been like the mouthpiece of a bugle through which much of the great anthem of westward expansion of the United States had emanated. From its founding in 1764 by the French fur trader Pierre Laclede, through it's annexation by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, and its famous world's fair a hundred years later, St. Louis had played a pivotal role in the westward growth of the nation. Yet, by the early 1930s, the Mississippi riverfront from which this march westward had commenced was an ugly tangle of warehouses, small factories, disreputable hovels, and railroad tracks. There was nothing of importance presiding over this ignoble mess but an old church and a courthouse (most remembered as having been the site of the first two Dred Scott trials).
The St. Louis Riverfront, 1942, the progress after only nine years.
One man, Luther Ely Smith, referred to as a civic leader, but really just a single private individual, unelected to any public office, started the ball rolling. He talked to the mayor, who talked to a lot of other people who, talked amongst themselves and formed the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association (JNEMA or Jenny Mae). Notice they completely ignored the Frenchman founder. That was in 1933 amid the depths of the Great Depression, a proposal for "stimulus spending" designed as much to boost construction employment at the time as to foster community pride. Ground was cleared, money was raised, a war was fought, a design competition held, and in February, 1963, construction got underway. Why did it take thirty years for Luther Smith's idea to start taking shape? Politics, race relations, labor relations, court challenges, a world war, a Korean War, fund raising challenges, design difficulties, engineering problems, not to mention those who contended it couldn't be done and others who contended it shouldn't be done.

Architect Eero Saarinen with
a scale model of the Arch.
The second generation Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen won the design competition over 172 of his peers. Both Eero and his father, Eliel, had submitted separate designs while the wife and mother, Lily Swann Saarinen, a sculptress, aided in the conception of both designs. Eero Saarinen's inspiring stainless steel arch, soaring 509 feet (later growing to 580 then to 630 feet in height) to frame the St. Louis skyline won out over all the others, despite the fact that no one was quite sure it could even be built (including the architect). In any case, they had plenty of time--some fifteen years (seemingly a lifetime) to debate and design the structure of the tallest monument in the United States.

The Catenary Arch
October 28, 1965, the capping steel section
is gingerly raised into place.
Saarinen's design structure is called a catenary arch. Though optically it doesn't appear so, it's exactly the same distance wide as it is tall, its "legs'' being equilateral triangles some 54 feet each, tapering to a mere 17 feet at the top. As beautiful and accepted as the arch is, or has become, as with all such projects, the design had it's critics. Some called it a giant hairpin while another detractor referred to it as a stainless steel hitching post. Others cried plagiarism (a catenary arch wasn't all that new or original), while others were reminded of Benito Mussolini's use of such an arch as a Fascist symbol. Saarinen considered the criticism surprisingly muted, however, and amusing. He won the $10,000 prize. His company, Saarinen Associates, won a hefty design contract, and for roughly $13-million ($94-million is 2013 dollars), St. Louis got a civic symbol to rival the best any city in the country had to offer.

A dizzying view--the Gateway Arch Observation room at the top.
Trams climb the inside of both legs, which are mostly steel-encased reinforced concrete.

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