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Building Books – Revisited – I

I have always enjoyed building things, putting things together, assembling models, and constructing various structures in our yard. It should then not come as a surprise that I have also always been interesting in learning about how different things were built by reading a book about the project. A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about some of the Building Books I had read which included books about the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and our modern highway system. Recently, I read a couple of more books that had been on my Amazon wish list for quite some time about building things.


The first of these was The Gateway Arch by Tracy Campbell.

As long as I can remember, the St. Louis Gateway Arch has impressed me. A unique structure that was built in my lifetime, it was as a child that I saw it for the first time when my family took a summer vacation to St. Louis. I have been back several times since and each time, it is still awe inspiring to stand at the foot of one of the lofting arches and gaze upward along its shiny surface into the sky.


And looking out from the observation deck at the top, can be seen an impressive view of the Mississippi River and downtown St. Louis.

Whether or not I knew it and had just forgotten it, but reading the book made me aware again that the arch, or more officially, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was actually built in honor of Thomas Jefferson and his foresight in expanding the western frontier of our young country through the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, a portion of which included the state of my birth, Louisiana.

One of the issues that I have learned in reading almost every one of my building books is that there is typically political controversy in the early phases of conceiving and designing a large public structure. Often, there are many competing interests that result in significant conflict prior to construction begins. In the case of the Gateway Arch, I was sad to learn that not only was there disagreement but also outright fraud when the residents were voting on the bond issue in 1935 that would authorize the city to incur debt in order to redevelop the “urban blighted” riverfront area. When the fraud was eventually exposed, it could have derailed the whole project had it not advanced as far as it had. But even sadder was the fact that following the positive vote, many historical buildings were bulldozed in clearing the 37 block river front site, including extremely rare and historical cast-iron buildings that had risen on the very spots where earlier wooden structures had been devastated by fire almost a century earlier.

But following the clearing of the land, it was a number of events that delayed the eventual start of the project. First the advent of World War II in 1941 distracted the country for almost five years. Then following armistice, an additional delay occurred awaiting approval from the National Park Service who would ultimately administer the park. Finally an agreement was reached in 1946 so that the architectural competition could be announced. Once made public, there were 172 submissions in the first round that were ultimately narrowed down through a jury process to just five for the second round.

While the entries varied quite widely in their design, it was interesting to learn that an arch was always considered a fitting monument going back to the early 1930s even before the first bond issue. Whether or not it was this prescient fact that gave him an edge in the competition, it was Eero Saarinen’ s resplendent entry that won.

But even before construction could begin, the outbreak of the Korean conflict and the launching of the national interstate system continued to distract the federal government and prevent the start of the construction.

During the delays, there were many distractors that felt a better use of the cleared land was simply for a car parking lot—maybe a progressive idea in 1947 but by today’s standards, an absolute waste of valuable water-front property. Others thought that the building of the arch would make St. Louis the laughing stock of the country and forever be known as the “Wicket City” (as in croquet wicket). But once contractor bids were solicited, the MacDonald Company, a name almost identical to the one that had erected golden arches all over the country, had submitted the winning low bid.


When construction finally began in 1961, there were numerous technical challenges that had to be repeatedly overcome. First, the foundations for the triangular bases could not be off by more than 1/64 of an inch to ensure the two legs of the arch would meet together at the top in the final stages of construction 630 feet above the ground. In addition, as the two legs grew higher, they could not be off by more than 1/16 inch. Amazingly, this level of precision had to be achieved in an era before computer aided design with all calculations and design work having to be done using slide rules and basic survey equipment. As the two legs rose higher, there began a natural competition between the northern “Yankee” leg and the southern “Rebel” leg as to which would reach the top first.

Incorporating an elevator was another vexing problem that wasn’t solved until very late in the construction process when the idea of the Ferris wheel saved the day with similarly small, ratcheting elevator cars. The Gateway Arch was finally joined as one in October 1965 but the park itself was not fully completed until May 1968, over 30 years after the original bond issue that began to advance this project.


While truly remarkable in its final form, one aspect deleted from the overall plan early on was the idea to tie the memorial park to downtown via a pedestrian bridge across the busy 3rd street. I literally let out a loud whoop when I read the name of the Brooklyn, New York landscape architectural firm—the firm my oldest son worked at—that had won the competition to design the fix to the park that was now separated from the city by an even busier interstate highway that had replaced 3rd street. A number of years ago, my son had secretly revealed to me that they were beginning design work on this project, a fact that could not be revealed at the time. Sadly 50 years after the completion of the Gateway Arch, it was again a lack of funds that prevented this long over due fix from going forward. Hopefully in my lifetime, it can still be remedied and reflect more closely Saarinen’s original vision for the park.

To be continued…

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