Day 130: Up The Arch

originally published May 9, 2012

In the little corner of oil-rich, prairie-heavy Canada that I begrudgingly call home, it takes a while for things to get done. We recently finished construction on a 28-storey office tower that took three years to complete. One of our busy bridges was fattened by two lanes, which also took about three years. By comparison, the Empire State Building took only fourteen months.

So why does it take so long for things to get put together here? I don’t know – that’s for someone else to figure out, maybe someone with a 2000 Words, 2000 Days project. I do know it’s not a Canadian thing – it took quite a  while for the St. Louis Gateway Arch to get thrown together as well.

About thirty-four years, actually.

Prior to the Arch’s construction, the St. Louis riverfront area was fertile land, and by ‘fertile’, I mean it was covered in rat poop. As important as the city was to American history, there was nothing to make it stand out. The town had no glitz. No enormous, weird monument thing.

The idea to elevate the riverfront area beyond its level of poopery came from local lawyer Luther Ely Smith. He suggested that building a snazzy monument to Thomas Jefferson might revitalize the area while at the same time scraping together some jobs which, in 1933, were scarce. The following year, after an exhaustive journey around both federal legislative houses – one that could only be accurately depicted by a cartoon scroll of parchment and a jaunty musical number – FDR put his stamp on the St. Louis Jefferson memorial.

Some people protested of course – some people always will. It was the same public money vs. job creation shout-match that has dominated a lot of public projects. But this time the job creation people won. Really in the 30’s, it was hard for them not to win.

So, design a memorial, buy some champagne and call it a day so that I can spend the next 650 words reminding everyone that you can purchase maple & bacon flavored beer, right? No such luck.

First came the acquisition of the riverfront land. Rather than go through a rigorous purchase negotiation with all the land-holders (and, presumably, the rats), the city – or more accurately the National Park Service, who was now running the show – grabbed all that real estate through condemnation. It took a few years and a whole bunch of court costs, but by 1938 the buildings on the property were turned over to the authorities. Then they were reduced to dust.

A media war broke out, with the NPS not wanting to lose funding, and those opposed to the memorial wanting the federal government to tuck that money back in its proverbial change-purse. There was also the matter of a railway that cluttered up the area. With downtown snugly nestled up beside this waterfront area, rerouting the tracks was not quite as simple as leveling a few buildings.

The war put the project into slow motion, but once victory was declared, it was time to move forward. The NPS issued a design contest, looking for the best ‘spiritual and aesthetic’ concept for the memorial, something that would look good on a license plate. A number of entries were submitted – 172 in fact – including these:

On September 1, 1947, the jury whittled the list down to five. One of the architects who’d been told he’d made it to the final five was Eliel Saarinen, who had designed entire districts in his home city of Helsinki.

Eliel cracked open a bottle of champagne and celebrated for two full hours before a messenger dropped by and awkwardly confessed that the message of congratulations had been meant for his architect son, Eero. Oops.

Sure, some people hated the design. They called it “the stupendous hairpin” and “the stainless steel hitching post”. Others compared it to an arch designed by Benito Mussolini, and called it a fascist symbol. But come on, as a monument of simplicity and geometric ingenuity, it’s one of the finest structures-for-the-sake-of-structure ever made.

The next few years were spent figuring out a way to rearrange the riverfront train tracks down into a tunnel, obscured by walls and landscaping so that they didn’t mess with the beauty of the memorial, which was to include a park and some other small buildings in addition to the giant fascist arch that everyone was now talking about.

By the time everything was in place to actually build the thing, it was December, 1961. Luther Ely Smith, the visionary who first dreamed up the project, had been dead for ten years. The ground had been broken and the first of the foundation had been laid two years earlier. And the real delays were just beginning.

Funding concerns? Of course. Clashes between private industry and public office? Yep. When the NPS tried to get the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company to remove their initials off a large creeper derrick being used in construction, it led to a lawsuit. How about a civil rights issue? Why not? When civil rights activists learned that the total number of skilled black workers (meaning people in jobs higher than ‘grunt’) on the project totaled a whopping zero, it led to protests and a work stoppage.

Somehow, on June 10, 1967, more than three decades since the Depression-era project had been conceived, it was finished. This enormous stretch of time could be seen as wasteful, or maybe just as a result of having run into more hiccups than a drunken lemur (who would, I assume, hiccup a lot). But in the end it got built, St. Louis got itself an icon, and it’s estimated that the existence of the memorial has sparked over a half-billion dollars in construction in the area, including the Cardinals’ (baseball and football) stadium that was built in 1966.

Not one person died during the construction of the Arch. A list of ‘incidents’ involving tram and elevator malfunctions (and even cables snapping) has also resulted in zero deaths. The only time the Arch has claimed a life appears to have been on November 22, 1980, when Kenneth Swyers parachuted onto the top of the Arch, then tried to deploy a second parachute in a BASE jump to the surface. The wind messed him up and his second chute didn’t deploy, so Swyers slid to his death.

At 650 feet, the Gateway Arch is more than 150 feet higher than the highest structure in Edmonton. Were we ever to try to build something that majestic, it would eclipse everything else in our skyline by a long shot.

Also, it would probably take us until the year 2100 to get it done.

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