The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is one of the most recognizable symbols in the United States of America. Yale University is sponsoring a series of books on American icons. As is typical of so much writing these days, the authors have a jaundiced view of America.
“The Gateway Arch” by Tracy Campbell, like other books on the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty, does not include any celebration or why we admire it. It provides the history begrudgingly — history of the artistic competition, the politics of clearing the waterfront and the challenge of building the arch. The book needed more meat on those subjects rather than the constant whining about removing the buildings on the riverfront, the promised jobs that supposedly never materialized, poor neglected East St. Louis and how the National Park Service is inept.
The irony is that the St. Louis arch is probably the purest modern art appreciated by Americans. Eero Saarinen is a comprised liberal hero because of things like the Dulles airport terminal and the arch, since people actually like them even though they are impractical. Saarinen also designed the Concordia Lutheran Seminary buildings around the lake here in Fort Wayne. They are his view of a Finnish village. It doesn't project warmth, but it is unique, historic and should be a national historic landmark. Much of what we celebrate here is imitative: The seminary is unique.
The cost of clearing all the property and then building the arch in St. Louis was certainly excessive for the time. Our recent debate about maintaining the purity of the vistas for our amazing Allen County Courthouse (NPS told me it was the second best in the United States) and the Lincoln Tower (our Art Deco high-rise classic) amazed me as to how it echoed the St. Louis debate. The National Park Service held firm against proposals for more buildings, trees and things that supposedly would have made it seem less “sterile.” The arch itself was to be the star.
Urban decay and rebuilding vital downtowns, without just shuffling the decay and poverty, is extremely difficult. Ironically when downtowns do revive and tax dollars come in, the same liberals who complain about the arch and ballparks complain that yuppies have taken over the downtown, driving the poor out. If you build a highway to downtown (as St. Louis did), you are condemned, and if you don't, you are blamed.
I believe the Gateway Arch is the most stunning piece of modern architecture in America. It was an expensive dessert at a time when America was short on basic food (the process began during the Great Depression). But if St. Louis hadn't gambled, if the Busch family hadn't been invested in the St. Louis Cardinals where they continue their plans to add development around the new stadium, where would downtown St. Louis be?
If you'd like to visit St. Louis without the arch, take a quick trip up to Detroit.