Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Historic St. Louis: Gateway to the West, Part 1

I love the Arch. I heart the Arch. I adore the Arch.

I see the Arch almost every day of my life, from varying distances and at diverse angles. Some mornings I watch the sun climb one of its legs. Other days, I’m amazed by the view of it completely engulfed in sunlight, often accompanied with a backdrop of billowy white clouds in a bright blue sky. Like this.

Other days, I’ve been blessed to see – and capture – views like these.

This week though, I was amazed to learn how very little I knew about its history. In fairness to me, the Arch was already well on its way when I arrived. (It was supposed to have predated me but it kept hitting delays, delays, delays.) Even so, the dedication of the Gateway Arch on Oct. 28, 1965, makes up the only view of the Mississippi’s St. Louis riverfront that I’ve ever known.
I’ve only been up in the Arch twice; once during a grade school field trip and again as a college student when I worked downtown part-time. I had the opportunity to go again last week but a crunched schedule required me to be back at the office instead. Bummer. It would have been fun to capture some views from on high. Oh well. I have all summer to do that, right?

For starters, here’s a few things I did not know about the Gateway Arch. Did you know:
· Planning for the Arch begin in the 1930s. Around 1933, they decided to create a “major presidential memorial” along the St. Louis riverfront, aptly honoring Thomas Jefferson. His Louisiana Purchase was, after all, the primary reason that anything west of Illinois is a state today. On March 10, 1804, a formal ceremony was conducted in St. Louis transferring ownership of the territory (which now includes all or part of 14 states) from France to the United States. (In the 1930s, only the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument existed as major presidential memorials.)
· Between the planning and construction phase, the United States fought in two wars. Essentially, they started knocking down buildings, making really good headway by 1940, and then got derailed by the U.S. entry into World War II at the close of 1941. This would happen again with the outbreak of war in Korea a decade later.
· The Arch’s height was “stretched” during 15 years. The original Arch design – part of the winning memorial expansion chosen in a 1947 competition— was 130 feet shorter than what we see today.
· What a gyp! The man widely credited as its architect, Eero Saarinen, not only didn’t live to see it built, he died in 1961 – two years before construction even started.

But the one thing I learned that totally blew me away – and not in a good way – was that construction of the Arch decimated 40 square blocks of downtown. Forty square blocks! And with those blocks, pieces of the city’s 18th and 19th Century history, like this. (Be sure to scroll down and see some of the awesome buildings mid-demo. Read the story, too, for more historic details!)

And this. And this, too. Even more. And still more. I finally had to just stop looking it made me so ill.

Granted, parts of these areas weren’t in very good shape and, in some cases, they were filled to the brim with the city’s seamy underside. (Some argued that obliterating “a ghetto” was the whole purpose of the effort which actually began clearing many of these buildings through 1940.) Some of the buildings though really were beautiful and could – and should – have been preserved.

Thankfully, no one even suggested that the Old Cathedral be part of the demolition. (Those designing the Jefferson Memorial National Expansion would just have to work around it. Seems strange to me to even see buildings standing near it!)

Less than 50 years into its life, the Arch is practically synonymous with St. Louis. It’s a major tourist spot and I give it credit for never fully letting downtown die, even during its darkest days in the past two decades.

And I’m not saying that nothing new should ever be built. No, that’s not my point at all – though with few exceptions, I mostly loathe modern architecture. I, do, however, think the best cities offer a carefully planned and beautiful skyline featuring both historic and modern structures.

I still love you, Arch, but you came at a very high price, one that could never be fully calculated into the project cost and one that will be exacted from generations to come.


Karen Anne said...

That's awful.

And what I don't understand is why new buildings are so ugly.

Vicki said...

The last two pictures are just breathtaking. I went up when I was young, but I don't really remember it. That just means we'll have to get back out there! Thanks for sharing your talent with us :)

Kate said...

I've also only been up in the arch once. I think the summer of '71? Didn't realize how new it was at the time. When I started to think about it, being in that tram, it's the first recollection I have a ever feeling claustrophobic. Don't remember much else about it other than that feeling. Hmmmm.