The Gateway Arch: A Biography by Tracy Campbell
The Gateway Arch, located on the west bank of the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis, is one of the most recognized symbols anywhere in the United States, perhaps in the world. Designed in 1947 by architect Eero Saarinen, the arch was erected between 1963 and 1965. It opened to the public in 1967, a 630-foot monument to President Thomas Jefferson’s [End Page 89] foresight in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the role of St. Louis as the Gateway to the West during the century that followed.
There is, however, another, much less glamorous, side to the story of the Arch. In this “biography” of the monument, produced as a volume in Yale University Press’s “Icons of America Series,” University of Kentucky history professor Tracy Campbell finds the Arch’s origins in the Depression era machinations of St. Louis mayor Bernard Dickmann and civic leader Luther Ely Smith.
Dickmann was elected mayor of St. Louis in 1933, the first Democrat chosen for that position since 1905. He took over the helm of government just as the city and the nation were trying to pull themselves out of the Great Depression. As Campbell writes, “Mayor Dickmann saw the city’s problems through the eyes of a real estate broker,” which was his vocation in everyday life (30).
Concerned about the large number of vacant commercial rental properties along the St. Louis riverfront and eager to attract tourists and their money to his city, Dickmann joined a group of likeminded civic and business leaders, including Smith, to create the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association. They hoped to “revitalize” the riverfront by “large-scale clearing of ‘blighted’ property.” Such an enterprise would have two effects: “The value of the surrounding parcels would necessarily increase as usable buildings and land diminished, and the razed areas would offer opportunities to potential speculators” (30). That the area was largely inhabited by African Americans bothered Dickmann not at all. Reflecting the racial insensitivity that has characterized far too many St. Louis officials historically, Dickmann concluded, as Campbell writes, that the “mostly African American inhabitants could be moved elsewhere, and in their place something beautiful could be built” (31).
Mayor Dickmann and his supporters began seeking federal funding for the project in 1934. They endorsed a local $7.5 million bond issue in 1935 as a way of trying to leverage three times that amount of money from the federal government. Leaving nothing to chance, Dickmann and his cohorts engaged in massive voter fraud to ensure passage of the local bond issue: “The goal of raising property values, of course, had to be concealed behind the cause of creating jobs and memorializing westward expansion…” (36).
The bond issue passed, and federal support was obtained. Land was acquired through purchase and eminent domain, and ownership transferred [End Page 90] to the National Park Service. In 1939, workmen began demolishing forty square blocks of buildings, among them some of the most historically significant structures in the city. For years after demolition, development stalled and the area was transformed into a vast parking lot, “the St. Louis Municipal Parking Lot.”
In the immediate postwar period, the National Park Service decided to hold an architectural competition for the design of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial as a way of reinvigorating the project. The winner of this competition was Eero Saarinen, a thirty-seven year old architect who worked in a Michigan architectural firm headed by his father. Although Saarinen’s winning design showed vision and promise, not everyone was pleased with it. What’s more, the architect’s peculiar personality complicated the process of moving from design to construction. As Campbell writes, “Saarinen’s public persona … concealed an insecure and narcissistic personality that led one sociologist who interviewed him to detect ‘psychopathic’ tendencies” (88).
Saarinen did not live to see his design executed. He died on September 1, 1961, nearly eighteen months before work on the Arch began. The building of the Arch presented multiple challenges to the engineers and craftsmen hired to erect it. The Arch also became a focal point for controversy, as African American laborers were systematically excluded from the trade unions that worked on it. In a scene that reminds the reader of the protests that occurred in St. Louis in the wake of a grand jury’s refusal to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in November 2014, local civil rights activist Percy Green and his core colleague Richard Daily climbed up one leg of the Arch, 125 feet above the ground, to stage a sit-in aimed at drawing attention to the fact that African American laborers were excluded from participation on the project. The protest by Green and Daily, however, had little impact; it did not increase the number of African Americans working on the job. In the end, Campbell observes, “In St. Louis’s long and troubled history of race relations, the Arch represented one more example of unmet promises” (145).
This is a well-crafted and important book that will leave readers troubled by the failure of St. Louis (and the nation) to deal adequately with its troubled racial past and its long history of political corruption. No one who reads this book will ever look at the Arch in the same way again. A beautiful symbol of vision and hope, yes—but also a reminder that, as Campbell [End Page 91] notes, “[Readers] may discover that the actual origins and legacies of great structures are often less beautiful than the structures themselves.”