What comes to mind when you hear the word “arch?” For some, it may be the Golden Arches of McDonald’s. For me, I think of the monument in St. Louis that we call “The Arch,” and that is also known as the “Gateway to the West.” It is our claim to fame, our symbol, and yet, it seems like so many people I meet on the East Coast don’t know what it is, or even that it’s in St. Louis.
The Arch is iconic. Not only is it IN St. Louis, but it IS St. Louis. It’s the kind of thing that never gets old when you’re driving downtown and see it out your car window, right at the Missouri-Illinois border, when you’re at a baseball game and see its majestic silhouette projecting over Busch stadium, or when you’re flying into St. Louis and see it from 10,000 feet. I always catch myself saying “Look, there’s the Arch!” even though I’ve seen it hundreds of times. To me, the Arch means home.
So what is it exactly? The Arch is a monument designed to commemorate America’s westward expansion (west of the Mississippi River) that began with the Louisiana Purchase. The Arch is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (along with the Old Courthouse), which is considered to be one of America’s national parks. It is located near the banks of the Mississippi River, on the waterfront.
The monument itself is an arch-shaped structure made of 17,246 tons of stainless steel. At 630 feet tall, the Arch stands as the tallest national monument in the United States–even taller than the Washington Monument. Though it looks taller than it is wide, the Arch is actually also 630 feet wide, at its base. The Arch was designed by architect Eero Saarinen, (who coincidentally also designed the dorm I lived in my freshman year of college) and its construction took from February 12, 1963 until October 28, 1965. Watch the slideshow above (courtesy of the National Park Service) to see the unique construction method required to build the arch, from both sides up, until the two sides met in the middle.
If you visit the Arch, you can actually go inside it by taking the Journey to the Top tour. You ride a tram (which sounds nice, but it’s more of a small pod) up the arch and walk around at the top and look out the windows at St. Louis below. It’s the best view of the city. You can see for up to 30 miles on a clear day. It’s definitely a cool experience, but I don’t recommend it if you are in any way claustrophobic. If you do ever go to the Arch grounds, though, make sure to also visit the attached Museum of Westward Expansion, which features exhibits about pioneers and Native Americans, and the Old Courthouse (two blocks away), where Dred Scott sued for his freedom. I always make sure to bring my out-of-town guests to the Arch, because it really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Here’s the view from the top:
Today, my favorite view of the Arch is from sitting in the stands at Busch Stadium, the baseball stadium where the St. Louis Cardinals play (I will write about them in a future post). The Arch has become an unofficial symbol of the Cardinals as well. In 2009, when St. Louis hosted the MLB All-Star game, the stadium groundskeepers cut the Arch into the outfield grass. Fans liked it so much that the tradition has stuck to this day. Annoyingly, the Millennium Hotel now somewhat obstructs the view of the Arch, but I still enjoy the skyline of downtown St. Louis.
The Arch is also a popular destination for watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. Each summer, celebrities like Sheryl Crow (a Missouri native) give free concerts around the 4th under the Arch.
My earliest memories of the Arch are from 1993, when the Mississippi River flooded. The water rose high enough to cover the steps leading up to the Arch. I remember my parents taking me downtown to watch people put sandbags by the River. I also remember taking a field-trip to the Arch with my second grade class. I have grown up with the Arch in the background.
The Arch grounds will be renovated in the near future, as part of the St. Louis Riverfront Redevelopment Project. This will include making the grounds more pedestrian friendly, as well creating new exhibits and programming on the grounds.
If you ever visit St. Louis, the Arch is a must-see. More importantly, the next time someone talks about the Arch, you will know both where and what it is.