The Gateway Arch
A monument to western expansion which recognized St. Louis as the “Gateway to the West’ was first proposed in 1933. Not until 1965 was the monument completed and it would be another three years before it was dedicated. The iconic arch, at 630 feet the world’s tallest, is clad in shimmering stainless steel and is the instantly recognized symbol of the city of St. Louis. From its very beginnings it was controversial over its use of land, the cost of building it, the removal of commercial property from the riverfront, and the need to relocate railroad traffic to accommodate its construction. State and federal funding from a variety of sources were needed to complete the project.
The story of the Gateway Arch spans the administrations of FDR through LBJ. As early as 1935 taxpayers were filing lawsuits against the project, calling it a huge government waste of money. The local government used federal money to acquire the property beginning that year and demolished the buildings on it, through condemnation by eminent domain. Ten years later a design competition for the monument was held, and in 1947 a design submitted by a team led by Eero Saarinen was designated as one of the finalists. The following year Saarinen’s modified proposal was selected. His proposal was immediately controversial.
By 1951 Saarinen’s completed proposal for the Arch and the remainder of the park beneath it were being debated because of the need to relocate railroad tracks in order to implement his vision. The debate involved the participating railroads, the state government, local government, and the United States Department of the Interior. The governments moved at their usual glacial speed. St. Louis zoning commissions heard opinions, considered options, debated benefits, and delayed decisions. Congress approved the project, but was unable to fund it, and requested help from private foundations, which refused the project as being outside of their charters.
In 1959 ground was finally broken for the construction of the foundation, as one by one the obstacles to the project were surmounted. In February 1963 construction of the arch itself was finally underway, with the goal of having the entire steel structure finished in time for the St. Louis bicentennial celebration in 1964. It wasn’t. Construction consisted of using crawler cranes on each of the arch’s two arms to attach prefabricated sections to another section beneath it, gradually rising to the crown where a final section would connect the arms. The cranes then crawled back down the arms to the ground. Work was delayed because of safety concerns and lawsuits over hiring discrimination.
The arch was topped out in 1965, but construction continued on the interior for another 18 months, including the installation of the interior elevators which operated as trams, with the cars rotating to remain level as they transverse the interior of the arch. On May 25, 1968 Vice-President and Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey dedicated the arch, while construction of the rest of the memorial went on, including the statue of Thomas Jefferson and the Museum of Western Expansion. An engineering marvel, the Gateway Arch receives over 4 million visitors each year, about a quarter of which make the journey to the observation room at its top.