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Take Five: New Arch history delves into wheeling and dealing behind the building of an icon

The Gateway Arch, a biography by Tracy Campbell
Book cover
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At first glance, a new history of the Gateway Arch that promises to “dispel long-held myths” and cast a “provocative new light” might appear an epic attempt to throw a wet blanket over our town’s shiny national monument on the riverfront.

But even as historian Tracy Campbell weaves his thorough and often unflattering story of the city politics and private-interest ambitions that played heavily in the Arch’s formative years, he can’t help but admire the 630-foot architectural marvel that is recognized by people all over the world.

"You could go there right now and just see people quietly standing under it and staring at it and wanting to touch it. And feeling somehow happy that they’re there,” said Campbell, a University of Kentucky professor, in a phone interview. 

His short biography, simply titled "The Gateway Arch” ($26) will be released in May as part of the Yale University Press "Icons of America” series that documents American history or culture through the study of an individual, event, object or cultural phenomenon. Subjects have included the Statue of Liberty, Fred Astaire and the hamburger.

The Arch has earned its right to be labeled an icon, notes Campbell who says he considers it a privilege to have written about such a notable piece of architecture.

"If you go to an elementary school and look at a map they’ve drawn, they’ve got the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building and in the middle of the country is always the Arch. Schoolchildren know exactly what it is,” he said. "So, it is a paradox. It is a beautiful, magnificent architectural structure that schoolchildren recognize, but there is a darker story to it that we need to understand and recognize.”

The historian became intrigued by the Arch while researching an earlier book on election fraud that brought him to St. Louis to study the passage of the bond issue in 1935 that created the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. While studying a St. Louis Post-Dispatch series that uncovered hundreds of cases of ballot box stuffing, Campbell said he became fascinated by the volumes of archival information available on the four-decade long process that culminated on "topping out” day on Oct. 28, 1965, when the two legs of the Arch were finally joined.

St. Louisans who know their local history will agree with Campbell’s assertion that nothing about the birth of the Arch is as simple as today’s tourism brochures might suggest.

From the beginning, Campbell writes, Mayor Bernard Dickmann’s support for Luther Ely Smith’s lofty goal of honoring America’s pioneers with a riverfront memorial seemed to be more about luring New Deal federal dollars for urban renewal. Debate raged over whether the riverfront site to be purchased and cleared was as "blighted” as proponents of the project suggested. After all, the 37-block area of privately owned buildings also included one-of-a-kind historic structures and successful businesses.

Later, the architectural design contest would have its share of critics who failed to see the glory of Eero Saarinen’s winning design. Some dismissed it as a giant croquet wicket, while others accused him of copying the design for a fascist memorial that was never built. And then came the monster challenge of building the thing.

"I’d find myself just reading about what this particular engineer had said or something from Saarinen. And I thought wouldn’t it be fun to explore that a little more,” Campbell said. “So I thought why not try a biography of an inanimate object and try and tell the deep stories that are there that we don’t realize when we visit a monument. It allowed me to explore so many things that interested me as a historian. I got to explore the New Deal, 1960s architecture, politics and elections. It’s just a rich story. You just never knew when you’d open up the next page what you’d find in the archives.”

An advance copy of Campbell’s book crossed our desk as we were considering a major milestone in Arch history: The first triangular section of steel was put into place 50 years ago last week.

Here are excerpts from the interview with Campbell:

The promotional material that accompanies your book says it dispels long-held myths, but the political wheeling and dealing and election fraud surrounding the bond issue of 1935 are fairly well known to St. Louisans who know their local history. What was unique about the efforts here to lure those big Depression-era federal dollars?

Campbell: Well, the structure is certainly unique. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere. Most cities didn’t turn to demolishing 40 square blocks to build an essentially non-utilitarian structure, and we certainly wouldn’t think of doing it today. Most cities turned to interstate highways and football stadiums and the like. St. Louis turned to an extra thing: this monumental arch on the river, which is as mysterious as it is beautiful.

As I tried to write in the introduction, we also need to ask what was there before. It wasn’t created overnight. It was not a natural process. I think with anything in our built environment -- whether it’s the Arch or a football stadium or an interstate highway -- we have to ask what was there before? What was the process by which it was built? Who won and who lost?

I hoped that I could bring some of that past to the surface. There is this myth that was created about the subject: that it was inspired by a democratic election, that the area was derelict and needed bulldozing. I hope people see that there was something lost in that. That the Arch was part of a larger 20th century experiment in urban planning that we’re already starting to see didn’t work very well.

I went to the Arch when I was just starting this. And I was sitting at the very foot of it and this tour group came out and they stood right next to me and I listened in. And they said, "That was fun, but what is this thing? What’s it here for?" And I thought, it’s so abstract. Maybe I could try and answer some questions about the reason it was built.

Nobody in this story is a hero or a villain. Everybody was working under what they thought were the best interests at that particular time, even though they might have been shortsighted or narrow in their views. We have to step back as historians and as people here in the 21st century to ask how we got here. Why do our cities have the issues they have? They were created by human beings over many years who made these kinds of decisions.

I think we ought to bring politics and economics and social and cultural history to the surface whenever we discuss any of these things -- whether it’s Mount Rushmore or any other beloved structure -- to know what’s the real story under it.

You note in your book that civic pride was running high by topping out day in 1965, and by then there was little public discussion of the project’s long and troubled past. At some point, do you think the feat of building the giant monument – look at what we’ve done -- seemed to take on more importance than the reason it was constructed?

Campbell: For someone who loves architecture and engineering it is really one of the more fascinating structures anywhere. It’s not just a skyscraper or a sculpture. This is the biggest public art that I know of.

And they worked with relatively primitive methods that we couldn’t imagine using now. They actually got to use a computer at one point and they paid some outrageous figure to use it – and it’s something that our iPhones could probably do now. But the legs met perfectly, and so it truly is an engineering marvel. And the working conditions -- there is no vertical or horizontal -- the fact that nobody died is shocking, quite frankly. I just can’t imagine that today.

This isn’t some kind of attempt by me to try and take the luster off because I still think the Arch is a magnificent structure. I enjoyed writing about Saarinen and how they tried to figure out what they were going to do with the riverfront and how they were going to reconfigure it and maybe put one leg in East St. Louis. They were literally playing with pipe cleaners like children do, but what they were doing was refashioning a whole city, or at least a part of a city.

A half-century after its completion, efforts to redesign the Arch grounds have forced St. Louisans to reconsider their monument. What do you think of the plans to reconnect the Arch grounds to downtown?

Campbell: I hope it can be done. It needs to be done. I wanted to show in this book that this discussion about the riverfront has been going on for generations. This is just the latest installment about what to do to make this a more livable space. I’ve seen the drawing, and it really is quite ambitious. I hope 10 years ago we can look at it and say, "Wow. It was done. Look how gorgeous it is now. People can really enjoy the place." So we’ll see.

And it might not be there forever. A lot of our human-made structures are meant to fail at some point. And who knows what it will look like 1,000 years from now. Right now it's breathtaking, and I hope it can last eons because it is one of the most unique structures in the world and one that’s architecturally compelling visually.

What most surprised you in the writing of this book?

Campbell: Keep in mind that I’d already started out with the 1935 bond election. I’m a social historian for many years, so surprising is not a word I use. But I would say how right after the election how quickly people were willing to forget any idea of a memorial and put something else there. Mayor Dickmann said let’s put a football stadium there or an airstrip -- or a trailer park. And people like Luther Ely Smith were trying to work to build something beyond that.

I live in Lexington [Kentucky], and we had a block of old buildings that were built in the 19th century and they were demolished to build this new glass-enclosed hotel. Once the buildings were demolished we couldn’t build anything because of the financial crisis and so now it’s an empty lot. And every time I drive by it, I think of St. Louis because for so many years they thought about putting a football stadium there or an airstrip. It was a parking lot for a long time. There was a long process involved in this, and who knows what the city would have looked like had they not built it and refurbished those areas. We don’t know. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this book -- to ask questions about our built environment.

You seem to enjoy telling the story of the Arch.

Campbell: I gave myself permission to write a biography about this "thing." And I insist on calling it a biography because I hope it gives some life to what was there before and what it is now and what it really represents. It’s been a real privilege to write this book. I’ve loved every minute of it.

This book was about 400 pages and in order for it to be in the [Yale] Icon series I had to cut 40,000 words. Having to cut so much really made me think about how I could say this in one paragraph rather than four pages. My chapter on Saarinen had been 60 pages. I felt like I was doing a mini-biography, and I really had to tone that down a lot. I took a lot out to keep to the story of the Arch itself.

It was really tough to put the history of St. Louis into a shortened version because it is important, and I don’t think you can disconnect it from the Arch. It’s one of the richest histories I’ve read in a long time about any city. It was kind of addicting to see the promise -- people were saying in the late 19th century that this was going to be the new Paris or New York. And then see it fall onto such hard times and to watch the population just decline over and over again.

When I went back and looked at the Great Divorce [of the city and the county in 1876], it’s not like you can say that all these people were just selfish or corrupt. At the time, it made some sense. But then as history played on, it became a disastrous decision.

The Arch has its own rich history and continues to have a rich history. We’re living it. And it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. And if they try to clean the surface, there will be a new generation, who’ll say, "I remember when they were cleaning that thing."

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

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