I took the tram ride up inside the St. Louis Gateway Arch three days after it opened in 1966. It was my first and last time. The construction began in 1961, so it took about five years to complete. The grassy riverfront park that it sits in was first envisioned way back in 1935. It was called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. In 1947, when we were all giddy and hopeful after the Second World War, there was a design competition to see who could come up with the best idea for a monument to commemorate the westward expansion that St. Louis and the Mississippi River were such a part of. Architect Eero Saarinen had the winning idea of a giant modernistic catenary curved stainless steel arch. The only problem was we had to wait a few years for the technology to build it caught up.
It seemed that every day you could watch the thing rise up into the sky like some giant erector set. Some of the locals wondered what the point of the whole thing was. To them the riverfront was a nasty collection of smelly docks and old warehouses and the only reason that you went down there was to work or take one of the bridges over the river into Illinois. Once you got over the river, the run-down streets of East St. Louis awaited you.
But for us kids it was exciting, especially if you lived in a neighborhood that was within walking distance of the riverfront like we did. Sure, there were risks involved. Venturing downtown one way from our little neighborhood meant trespassing the only street that went through the hi-rise housing projects on one side and the old low-rises on the other. It was much safer to head up to 12th Street and hit Market down by Union Station. Then you could see the beginnings of the arch off in the distance and it was then a straight shot to the riverfront. If you had some extra time, you could stop and play in one of the rail yards or climb up in one of the downtown parking garages and try to spit on some of the passersby’s below. (I never said that we were particularly good kids, now did I?)
When we finally arrived at the Arch, there was a three and a half hour wait to get inside and get on the tram. The tram seemed small, even for us kids, and there was just a tiny window that looked out onto the emergency steps; all 1,076 of them. Most of the five of us that were crammed into the tram thought that they would have preferred to take the steps up to the top, but peer pressure put a bottle cap on that fear.
The St. Louis Arch cost 13 million dollars to build (about 80 million in today’s dollars) and it was a bargain considering we just spent way over a budget of 430 million to build an eight mile extension of the Metro Link trains, and it took almost as long to complete as it did to build the Arch.
It seems that most of the people in St. Louis take this world famous monument well, sort of for granted. Now, two documentary filmmakers Bob Miano and Scott Huegerich, have set out to change all that. Their film, “The Gateway Arch: A Reflection of America,” premiers this Saturday at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. Instead of focusing on the construction like the Oscar-nominated Guggenheim film that has been showing in the theater underneath the Arch for the last 40 years, the new film focuses on the 19th century pioneer migration and the 1947 design competition. Narrated by hometowner Kevin Kline, the movie showcases St. Louis as the important and historical city that it is. At one time, St. Louis was the fourth biggest city in the country, and was also being considered for capital of the United States status. At the same time that all of this was happening, St. Louis was at the farthest reach of civilization, with hostile Indians and wilderness just to the west.
When the new Metro Link extension opens, maybe I’ll ride it down to the riverfront and go up in the Arch again.