The Gateway Arch (And Why It's Not Fascist)


This week, David Clark is our tour guide as we take a closer look at some of America's greatest monuments. His series continues today with the story of the Gateway Arch.

For a monument to the westward expansion of the United States, you might expect something evocative of tenacious settlers, grizzled mountain men, unflinching explorers, hardy cowboys, and all that mythology of the West. Maybe a giant gold train, or a 400 foot (dead?) buffalo. But instead we have a 630 foot-high, 630 foot-wide sleek and gleaming silver arch -- some kind of sci-fi fantasy, or cyborg rainbow. What gives?

What is It, and Why Build It?

The Gateway Arch is the most ostentatious part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which resides just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, in the city of St. Louis. St. Louis is the spot from which legendary explorers Lewis and Clark embarked on their westward expedition, at the bidding of President Jefferson. It was the edge of the wilderness for a time, the frontier's gate, so it now fittingly bears this modern monument to our nation's westward growth. The Memorial also contains a Museum of Westward Expansion and the Old Courthouse where the influential Dred Scot case began -- the one that ended up with a ruling that black people were not "people" people, and the Feds could not prohibit slavery in those new territories the US was quickly acquiring.

The Memorial site was selected in 1935, as a Depression-era urban renewal and work relief project.

But thanks to World War II, it wasn't until 1947 that a competition was held for monument designs representing the "opening of the West," as it's sometimes called. A young architect named Eero Saarinen won with his futuristic design, construction began in 1963 and the whole thing was finished within two years.

There are any number of explanations for the Arch's appeal and interpretations of its symbolism. There's the structure's suggestion of passage and movement, the American ideal of Progress, and the romance and promise of its space-age appearance (constructed at the dawn of space exploration, which was the "final frontier"). And don't forget the arch's classical forebears, the Roman Triumphal Arches, which commemorated the victories of Rome's generals and emperors; and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, commissioned by Napoleon at the peak of his power -- reminders that America's westward expansion was also a westward conquest.

Fine -- but is it fascist?

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Other critics, especially St. Louis locals, just thought the arch looked too silly, like a behemoth croquet wicket.

Today some people still worry about the Arch -- not that it's fascist, but that it might be a clandestine weather-control device designed by the scientists who conceived the A-bomb, or else some kind of Freemason sorcery. But most don't mind, many like it, and the rest are just used to it.

Daredevil's Playground

Such an odd and daring shape inspires some odd and daring behavior. A number of hotrod pilots have (illegally) flown their planes under the Arch -- the first one less than a year after the monument was finished. In 1977 a plane flew through at night with no lights on, barely 50 feet above the ground, grazing street lights. Once a helicopter went through, too, because helicopter pilots have needs just like airplane pilots.

But those dangers pale before the feat of Kenneth Swyers, who parachuted from the sky and landed atop the Arch -- on purpose. It was a poor day for jump, though, and an even worse day for standing on top of a 630 foot-tall stainless steel arch that sways several inches in heavy winds, with a parachute hanging from your back. Swyers's chute was caught in a gust and the stunt ended with his tragic fall from pinnacle to base.

A few years later, David Adock donned a blue suit and a blue wig, attached suction cups to his hands and feet, and set out to climb the smooth surface of the Arch. He probably hadn't thought the thing through at the outset, because "Skip Stanley, the Blue Bandit," as he called himself, was talked down before gaining much altitude at all. He decided instead to go across St. Louis and climb the Equitable Building, and that seemed to satisfy whatever needed satisfying, so everything turned out fine.

What's Better: the Gateway Arch or Delicate Arch, of Arches National Monument?

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Delicate Arch is the icon of the southwest's redrock wilderness and the unofficial symbol of Utah, unique for its freestanding structure -- most rock arches blend on one side with a larger formation -- and for its absurdly scenic perch. Gateway Arch is an icon of modern architecture and the unofficial symbol of Missouri. Delicate Arch is made of sandstone, by God, or Nature, or whatever you think makes things like that. Gateway Arch is made of cement and stainless steel, by lots of people and $15 million dollars. You can't get to the top of Delicate Arch without climbing, which is a daunting proposition, considering the steep slopes and rocky death on both sides of it. Gateway Arch has odd little trams that take you up to an enclosed viewing gallery at the top; so you won't have to get dirty or scared, or stop eating candy or whatever it is you're doing. Finally, before you decide on your preference, I'll mention that from Delicate Arch you can look out over a lonely, almost alien landscape of slickrock and sand, desert shrubs and lots of sky. And from Gateway Arch you can look down at people milling about, resembling ants, and you feel strong urges to drop things.

Previously: The Statue of Liberty, The Washington Monument, The Unfinished Tribute to Crazy Horse