Go West, Young Man!
Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch and the Symbol of Western Mobilization
At a record 630 feet the St. Louis Arch towers above the midwestern metropolis, gleaming in stainless steel unburdened by wind or quake. Resting before the Mississippi River, The Arch is nicknamed “The Gateway to the West” to commemorate the city’s central role in America’s westward expansion. It is the tallest manmade monument in the western hemisphere, and although competition is scarce, it is also worth noting that it is the world’s tallest arch. This all seems mighty for a town that most seem to only “stop in” or “fly over” as I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances after raising curiosities of my hometown.
It is fitting, however, that most would only stop in or fly over St. Louis. The city was long known as a destination for trading and exploration on the way to, well, somewhere else. For early tradesmen, the idea was that you made your money in the plains and headed west to settle on the coast. The famous highway, Route 66, which ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri and down to Texas until its final stop in Santa Monica, California, solidified the city as one made of passerby’s, dropping in while on America’s road of industrialization. Today, you can no longer drive the complete Route 66, it was decertified as a highway in the late ’80s and now only exists in memory or in preserved sections of its course. Writing this, I can almost hear an echo of “Go west, young man!” from the author Horace Greeley who, among many writers that penned this phrase, depicted American’s expansion westward as a manifestation of destiny. It was in this idea that I too seemed to find my destiny. Like the joyriders of Route 66, I packed my bags and headed west to California, where I now reside, in search of what the Arch promised through its 630-foot wide viewfinder– prosperity.
Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, The Gateway Arch began construction in 1963 and completed in 1965. Saarinen, who died of a brain tumor in 1961 before ground broke on the structure’s 60-foot deep foundation, was selected to design a monument honoring western pioneers. The Arch, as tall as it is wide, frames the city’s horizon and stands as almost a portal for something beyond. Up close the sweeping landmark seems even more impossible than it does from afar– it is Missouri’s tallest accessible building and categorized as “accessible” for this reason: Placed piece by piece on either side until both curved pillars meet for one last placement or keystone, the final pieces were set with several small windows, through which guests who wish to stomach the 45-minute tram ride inside the Arch can spectate 30 miles of flatlands, east and west, peering down the Mississippi River from the Arch’s center peak. At its base, there is also an eponymous sub-terranean museum, and of course, a gift shop.
Like the Romans who first built structural arches to expand their culture across Europe with tunnels and aqueducts, Saarinen used The Gateway Arch as a symbol of the boundless post-war American optimism that placed St. Louis on a world stage.
For Saarinen, this daring architectural feat would soon launch him into the stratosphere of global recognition. Although construction did not begin until 1963, the idea of the Arch was first proposed in the ’40s where Saarinen was chosen as a finalist out of 172 submissions for the project. But before the Arch’s actualization, throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the designer was already sculpting the future of America. Notably, the neo-futurist TWA Flight Terminal at JFK Airport, as well as some of the most coveted mid-century furniture like the Womb Chair, Tulip Table & Tulip Chairs. His iconic styles made for Knoll Design that remain in production today.
It would not be far-reaching to say that St. Louis isn’t particularly known for its modernist architecture. Albeit the rare discovery of an Isamu Noguchi ceiling hidden in a U-Haul facility, or a Frank Llyod Wright house tucked away outside of town, there’s not much to hold. The steel monolith in its alien-like, Space Odyssey presence stands as a towering symbol of regional innovation and modernization. Like the Romans who first built structural arches to expand their culture across Europe with tunnels and aqueducts, Saarinen used The Gateway Arch as a symbol of the boundless post-war American optimism that placed St. Louis on a world stage.
From almost every ground I stood growing up in the city the Arch was visible in the sky. I’ve watched the sunrise and set on its angled panels designed to catch light from both east and west, casting colorful hues. I’ve watched fireworks erupt over its facade for annual July 4th celebrations and New Year’s Eve alike. I’ve gone to concerts in the park under its silver arms and watched boats float by on the river at its feet. I have not though, been inside the Arch. There is something ominous about being confined within a sky-scraping curved structure in small, capsule-like cabins. However, millions of enthusiasts far and wide have flocked to take the soaring ride. There are no age limits to go inside its frame, but I would not recommend it for infants or seniors. I once asked an attendant what would happen if the tram were to malfunction– “In case of emergency, there are 1100 stairs.”
Further on safety: in constructing the Arch, the insurance company backing the project predicted that 13 people would die. Thankfully, no one did.