Friday, 28 October 2005

The Gateway Arch

It was 40 years ago today that the Gateway Arch (or the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, as it is officially designated) was completed. I don't know how significant the Arch (as folks around here simply call it) is to other Americans, much less for people living outside the United States, but I am guessing that for most Missourians it is our Mount Everest, our Empire State Building. Quite simply, I suspect that for most Missourians it is our most important piece of architecture.

The Gateway Arch was the result of a long proces that began over thirty years before it was topped off with its last piee. In 1933 lawyer Luther Ely Smith urged St. Louis Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann to make over the forty acres of riverfront warehouses into a monument to the settlement of the West. The following year, in April, Smith was made the chairman of a nonprofit organisation towards that goal, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association. That June, President Roosevelt signed a bill which established the U.S. Territorial Expansion Memorial Commission. On September 10, 1935, the citizens of St. Louis passed a $7.5 million bond issue for the constructon of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. That same year, on December 1935, President Roosevelt issued an executive order which made the 40 acres of St. Louis riverfront part of the National Park system.

Progress on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was interupted by World War II and for many years nothing happened. Finally, on October 22, 1946, a contest to choose the design for the memorial began. The prize was $50,000. By Feb. 19, 1948 a winner had been chosen. That man was architect Eero Saarinen of Detroit, whose desing was the arch we now know and love. Work on the Arch was interrupted once more, this time by the Korean War. For the next many years work would progress slowly until, on June 27, 1962, construction of the Arch finally commenced. It was on this date in 1965 that the project, first conceived in 1933, was finally completed. The Gateway Arch cost a bit less than $15 million. It is built to stand up to strong winds and even earthquakes. It is 630 feet tall.

I have only gotten to visit the Gateway Arch once. My brother, my future sister in law, and I went to St. Louis one July 4 to watch Cheap Trick perform. I could not help but be amazed by the Arch. It is absolutely huge. Made of stainless steel, it is also very bright. In fact, it does act as a bit of giant reflector--I came away that day with a severe sunburn on my face! I wanted to go up in the Arch, although both my brother and future sister in law complained that it would bother their inner ears. At least in my brother's case, I think acrophobia may have been more the case. At any rate, someday I want to go up in the Arch.

As stated earlier, the Gateway Arch is meant to commerate the expansion of the United States west of the Mississippi River. Its name is taken in part from President Thomas Jefferson, who signed the Louisiana Purchase. In my opinion, however, I think the Arch represents more things that simply the nation's movement westward. It is probably the one structure most idenified with the city of St. Louis. Indeed, I daresay many people may think of St. Louis as the home of the Arch. Given that St. Louis is the largest city (and one of the oldest) in the state of Missouri, it is to some degree also a symbol of the state. In fact, it is probably the most famous monument, the most famous single structure, in all of Missouri. Of course, the Arch is an architectural marvel. It towers over the riverfront and can be seen for literally miles. Standing directly beneath it, one cannot help but feel overwhelmed.

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