Gateway Arch in St. Louis Turns 40

Mon November 21, 2005 - Midwest Edition
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ST. LOUIS (AP) It’s hailed as among the finest monuments in the world, but when architect Eero Saarinen was creating a shape for this city’s famed Gateway Arch, he constructed his first model out of pipe cleaners.

A long way from its humble beginnings, the shimmering steel Arch celebrated its 40th anniversary on Oct. 28 with events at its Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park along the Mississippi riverfront.

The original builders were invited back to talk to visitors; a temporary exhibit on architect Saarinen opened in the museum beneath the Arch; and book signings were held for a new anniversary publication, “The Gateway Arch, An Architectural Dream.”

With text by park historian Robert Moore Jr., the book gathers photographs, essays and written oral histories to recount the building and significance of the Arch.

Included among them, Saarinen recounts in a 1948 newspaper article how he came up with the Arch’s design by thinking about what made other American monuments great and how memorials to “our three greatest men” –– George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson –– each had a distinct geometric shape.

“The Washington Monument, a vertical line; the Lincoln Memorial, a cube; and the Jefferson Memorial, a globe,” Saarinen said. “There is something simple and satisfying in that, and I wondered whether a monument in St. Louis to Jefferson and the westward expansion should not have a shape along lines of the monument to him in Washington.”

He began to envision a dome with a design more open than the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, perhaps one that touched the ground at three points.

“We tried it in a very crude way; the only things we could find to make it with were some pipe cleaners,” he said. “But three legs did not seem to fit in the plan, so we tried it with two legs, like a big arch.”

The idea for a memorial in St. Louis began in 1933 with lawyer Luther Ely Smith, who wanted a way to beautify the city’s run-down riverfront, the first glimpse many visitors got of St. Louis.

The memorial would mark Jefferson’s role in the nation’s westward expansion and the 19th-century migration of hundreds of thousands of people to the West, at a time when St. Louis was the last major city before the frontier.

Smith began raising $225,000 for a national design competition and even went back to one large donor, who pointed out that he had already contributed.

“Now you have to protect your investment,” Smith told the man in order to solicit additional funds, according to his granddaughter, Christine Ely Smith, in the book.

While work was done to secure and clear 90 acres, the idea for a memorial was not revitalized until two years after World War II.

The design competition Saarinen’s team entered in 1947-48 had 172 submissions, including one from his father, the well-known architect Eliel Saarinen. The son, Eero, was just 38, and his father’s reputation far surpassed his own at the time. When a Saarinen advanced in the competition, Eliel received a telegram congratulating him, and the family broke out a bottle of champagne.

“Two hours later the family received a phone call from an embarrassed competition official,” noted Eero’s daughter, Susan Saarinen, in her account. It was young Eero, and not his father, who had a chance to win. “Eliel, a very proud father, broke out a second bottle of champagne” to toast his son.

Eero Saarinen died in 1961, well before the Arch’s construction from 1963 to 1965. But his daughter spoke at at the new exhibit, which is running through July 16, Moore said.

The Arch’s builders also will be invited back to talk about their role constructing the monument. One of them, retired iron worker Vito Comporato, of St. Louis, served as the radio operator atop the Arch while the last piece was fitted on Oct. 28, 1965.

“The day we set the last piece in place, there was quite a bit of excitement, helicopters flying overhead and steamboats blowing their whistles,” he recalled this week.

He worked on the project from 1963 to 1966, at a job where workers labored high above the city, in tight spaces, outside and at heights on a 630-ft. Arch designed to have some sway.

To him, that was simply the nature of the work.

“It was like it was breathing almost, but it was very strong,” he said of the Arch.

If he visits the Arch these days, it’s usually with out-of-towners or relatives, but it holds a special place for him.

“Mostly that Arch to me is a memorial to the friends I worked with there. It reminds me of them,” he said.

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