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Few structures in the American landscape are as familiar as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—the towering 630-foot stainless steel monument is featured in countless schoolbooks, on postcards, the Missouri state quarter, and frequently in the background of national television broadcasts. The ubiquity and elegant beauty of the arch, however, belie the complicated story of its origins. Tracy Campbell offers readers a fascinating reconsideration of the iconic structure, exploring the contested history of its creation and the larger legacy of the sculpture for the city of St. Louis.
The origins of the arch date to the midst of the Great Depression, when political and corporate leaders in St. Louis declared that the forty-acre commercial district on the city’s riverfront was “blighted” and posed a threat to downtown real estate values. The proposed solution was a public-works project that would clear the land and construct some sort of memorial to the Louisiana Purchase and the role of St. Louis as the “gateway” for westward expansion.
Not until after World War II did the memorial’s proponents secure sufficient funding from federal and local sources and select Eero Saarinen’s arch design for the memorial. Political and financial obstacles further delayed the construction of the arch, until it finally opened in 1965 as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. In the meantime, federal urban renewal projects and multi-lane expressway construction reshaped the surrounding landscape, remaking the city for the automobile age.
Befitting his role as co-director of the University of Kentucky’s Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Center, Campbell focuses frequently on the political horse-trading, fraud, and power struggles among city, state, and federal agencies that at times threatened to derail the project entirely. At the same time, the work gives considerable attention to the perspectives of a broad spectrum of St. Louis residents—the construction workers whose craftsmanship helped [End Page 546] overcome the engineering obstacles inherent in the complex structure, as well as to black St. Louis civil rights activists, who scaled the half-finished arch to protest the racist hiring practices that excluded them from its promised prosperity. From these perspectives, the arch took on symbolic meanings that were beyond the control of its buttoned-down planners.
Campbell’s prose is deft and highly readable, and critical historical evaluation is nicely balanced here with a story that is still accessible to the non-academic reader. Substantial research in archival sources undergirds the book throughout. Saarinen’s papers, for example, provide fascinating insight into the evolution of the memorial and the mercurial personality of its creator, who, sadly, died in 1961 before his masterpiece was completed.
Equal parts modernist sculpture, public-works project, and roadside tourist trap, the arch was supposed to catalyze the physical and economic revitalization of St. Louis. Campbell argues, however, that the structure failed in this mission, and indeed the large-scale demolition and redevelopment involved in the arch and its related urban renewal projects likely accelerated the city’s postwar decline. Although office and tourist-oriented development anchor downtown today, neighborhoods in the arch’s immediate vicinity exhibit the abandonment, poverty, and crime that epitomized the postwar urban crisis.
In his admirable effort to avoid a purely celebratory history, Campbell perhaps ascribes too much blame to the arch project for its role in the postwar collapse of St. Louis; the seismic shifts of postwar deindustrialization, racism, and mass suburbanization would likely have created a similarly depressed city even if the arch never left the drawing board. On a lesser note, the narrative flow also suffers occasionally from excessive quotations that become distracting and provide little additional insight. These minor critiques, however, do not substantially detract from what is a very admirable work.
While maintaining his critical stance, Campbell still conveys an appreciation for the structure as an inspiring and remarkably singular urban space. “Today,” he notes rightly, “it would be unthinkable to [End Page 547] level forty square blocks of an American city to erect a nonutilitarian sculpture” (p. 171). For...