|By Connie Swaim
I’m claustrophobic and I’m afraid of heights. So, a trip to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis may not seem like such a great idea. However, last week when I was in St. Louis for a conference, I decided to make the half hour hike from my hotel to the arch and just check it out.
My friend Chelsea had been to the arch as a youngster and had fond memories of visiting with her father. She wanted to recreate several photos that she had taken when she was a kid. She really wanted to go up to the top. Just standing underneath it and looking straight up made me feel queasy, but I decided to buy a ticket and see what it looked like inside and what the people who were exiting looked like. I told Chelsea if I saw people vomiting or appearing in distress as they exited the tram system, then I wasn’t going.
The tram pods are tiny. They hold five passengers (and five passengers who don’t have issues with body parts touching). The door to the tram is 4 feet high so you have to duck. It looks very much like a 1950s interpretation of a spaceship pod.
After much internal debate I got into the pod and began the 4 minute ascent to the top. I knew it only took 3 minutes to go back down; so I figured if I got too freaked out at the top; I would just get right back in the tram and head to the ground. I ended up doing fine. I could not sit on the window ledge and look straight down as some people were doing; but looking out the window was ok.
Mid Century modern fans may want to make a visit to the arch as it was designed by Eero Saarinen, a Finish-born architect who had a long history designing furniture for Knoll. While still working with his father, Saarinen designed a chair with Charles Eames for a 1940 completion where it received first prize. According to Wikipedia, “During his long association with Knoll he designed many important pieces of furniture including the “Grasshopper” lounge chair and ottoman (1946), the “Womb” chair and ottoman (1948), the “Womb” settee (1950), side and arm chairs (1948–1950), and his most famous “Tulip” or “Pedestal” group (1956), which featured side and arm chairs, dining, coffee and side tables, as well as a stool.”
Saarinen also designed the Washington Dulles International Airport and the TWA terminal at JFK International Airport.
A competition was held in 1947 to select a design for a memorial to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and St. Louis’ role in westward expansion. Originally called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the name was later changed to Gateway Arch National Park. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the plans for the memorial as it required the demolition of many small factories and displaced many people, mostly African Americans. While the original plans said the project would employee 5,000 people for multiple years, that never came to pass. The Arch employed very few people during its contraction.
When Saarinen won the competition his design called for a 590-foot tall catenary arch placed on the banks of the Mississippi River. Over the next 15 years, as legal and building issues slowed construction; the plans changed, placing the Arch on higher ground and adding 40-feet to the height.
Sadly, Saarinen did not live to see the Arch completed. As a matter of fact, he died before construction ever began. Saarinen died in 1961 during an operation for a brain tumor. Construction of the arch did not begin until Feb. 12, 1963.
The last section of the arch was put into place on Oct. 28, 1965. It weighs 17,256 tons. Its 142 stainless-steel sections required almost 900 tons of stainless steel. It was built at a cost of $13 million (which would be more than $100 million today).
It is estimated that 4 million people visit the arch each year.
I was grateful to learn that there are three ways to get up and down the arch. After I looked at the tram pods I was hoping there was some way down in case of emergency. There is an emergency staircase with 1,076 steps. I can’t even comprehend how long that would take a person if they were needed. There is also an elevator that goes to the 372 foot level. You still have about half the arch to go; but I guess it is better than nothing. There are two trams, one on each arch. In total they can carry 80 passengers every 10 minutes. Due to the curve of the arch, the tram cars act as a kind of Ferris wheel where the cars shift occasionally to follow the curve.
It is definitely worth a trip to the top as long as you can stomach the tram journey and not freak out at the top. Most of the people I saw seemed extremely happy with the trip and the journey although my tram compartment companions made a lot of nervous small talk both going up and coming down.
The gift shop in the arch has some great books on Modern furniture, especially anything relating to Saarinen.