Completed on this day fifty-seven years ago, the Gateway Arch served as a catalyst for St. Louis’ mid-twentieth-century renaissance.
The six-hundred-thirty-foot-tall structure was then, and still is, that gleaming stainless-steel phenomenon and symbol, soaring above and beyond the banks of the Mississippi River. It replaced a sagging riverfront packed with dingy brick warehouses and smokestacks.
It is impossible for me to reflect on this city I love–the place where I was born which now bears little physical resemblance to what I remember half a century ago–without acknowledging the magnificence, continuity, and meaning of the Arch.
In late 1965 shortly after a construction crew finished the project, I stood directly underneath it with my parents, looking straight up from the base, running my palms across its smooth-and-shiny skin. It would be decades before sapling trees would grow tall enough to create this park-like atmosphere you see here.
For three summers–1977, 1978, and 1979–I worked underneath, around, and inside the Arch as a history interpreter for the National Park Service. It was a fabulous job for this then-twenty-year old idealist and history buff.
I gave tours in the Museum of Westward Expansion, talked about the city’s founding as a French fur-trading post in 1764, and played color commentator for wobbly visitors as they gazed across the Missouri and Illinois horizons through tiny windows at the top of the Arch.
In those days that federal landscape was defined as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, because the Arch was built as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and recognized St. Louis’ pivotal role in the westward expansion movement.
Of course, the concept of westward expansion conjures sometimes-controversial overtones in this era. Of white settlers moving west to push Native Americans from their land.
But no matter your point of view about U.S. history, the Gateway Arch constitutes an architectural marvel at the very least and a symbol of pride for St. Louisans past and present.
In 1947, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won a competition with his Gateway Arch design. His concept included reflecting pools on the ground to soften the sharp edges of the monument that carves its path through the sky.
Unfortunately, Saarinen didn’t get to see his masterpiece completed. He died September 1, 1961, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor.
But the rest of the world watched with wonder four years later. When construction workers–dancing on the edge of the sky–inserted the capstone piece to connect the north and south legs of the Gateway Arch, St. Louisans breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed their brighter-and-shinier identity.
Fifty-seven years later, I understand the surrounding trees have matured, and the Arch grounds have been connected more seamlessly with the rest of the downtown area.
And the Gateway Arch itself? It’s still standing and an inspiring site to behold.