Compass

Oct. 28, 1965: Gateway Arch is completed in St. Louis

Compass

(Photo: Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1930s, the Mississippi River waterfront in St. Louis was in sad shape, full of crumbling industrial buildings. City leaders came up with a plan for a park, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, that would commemorate the city’s role as a gateway for America’s historic westward expansion — and generate long-term revenue for the city.

The project faced stiff opposition from property owners who were forced to sell their land. Others thought it was a “pork” project that shouldn’t be funded with taxpayer money. But in the middle of the Great Depression, many saw it as a job-creation measure and a way to boost national pride. With a combination of private funds, bonds and public development money in place, demolition began in the late 1930s.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that National Park Service Director Newton Drury came up with the idea to place a giant monument as the park’s centerpiece. Industrial designer Eero Saarinen won the design competition in 1948 with a sweeping, graceful silver arch. Although some derided the arch as, for example, a "stupendous hairpin" and a "stainless steel hitching post," other reviews were more positive. Until the keystone (containing thousands of schoolchildren’s signatures) was laid on Oct. 28, some observers weren’t sure if the two sides would meet up perfectly, but they ultimately did.

Today, the arch stands largely as what it was meant to be: a tribute to America’s pioneering spirit. At 630 feet in both height and width, it is still America’s tallest memorial and the world’s largest steel monument. Visitors can take a tram to an observation deck, where windows let them look out over the river and the city. More than 25 million people have taken the ride to the top.

The Gateway Arch and the surrounding park (which was not fully completed until 1976) also proved to be the economic boost that city fathers envisioned, spurring developers to build a nearby sports stadium, convention center, hotels and other tourism-oriented projects near the site.

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