8 Facts You Didn’t Know About St. Louis’s Gateway Arch
There is hardly a more recognizable landmark in the Midwest than the towering Gateway Arch in St. Louis, a 630-foot monument to Thomas Jefferson and his ideas for America’s westward expansion. It is the tallest monument in the United States and the tallest arch in the world. The arch designed by the American-Finnish architect Eero Saarinen was a technical masterpiece – in fact, many people did not believe that it would last. But as evidence of the architects, engineers, and workers who built it, the Gateway Arch has long stood the test of time. It was officially opened in 1965 (unfortunately four years after Saarinen’s death) and has attracted millions of visitors ever since. While it’s a landmark, there are a number of facts you may not know about the Gateway Arch. Here we present eight of them.
1. Forty blocks of St. Louis were demolished to build the arch and surrounding park.
In what St. Louis City Engineer WC Bernard referred to as a “forced slum clearance program,” dozen of warehouses and cast iron buildings with 290 companies were demolished to make way for the arch. It was a controversial move – especially since it was found that the vote on the allocation of city funds for the project had been rigged.
2. The two legs of the arch were built separately and if their dimensions were only 1/64 of an inch they would not have been able to connect at the top.
The stainless steel parts of the arch were shipped by train from Pennsylvania and had to be assembled on site. Welders had to work extremely carefully to ensure their measurements were accurate – the allowable margin of error was less than half a millimeter. While construction workers were confident of their product, many people speculated that if the last piece was attached to the top of the arch to connect the legs, the arch would fail. Of course it didn’t.
3. The insurance company for the project predicted that 13 workers would die during construction.
Given a difficult construction process with people working hundreds of meters in the air without safety nets, it’s no great surprise that insurers were expecting deaths. But somehow nobody died during the construction. The only death associated with the Gateway Arch was that of Kenneth Swyers, who jumped from a plane in 1980, parachuted to the top of the arch, and tried to jump to the ground. His parachute did not deploy and he fell to his death.
4. There was confusion as to whether Eliel or Eero Saarinen won the design competition for the monument.
Both father and son entered the competition, and although Eero was selected as the winner, confused officials falsely told Eliel he had won. The architects and their family had already held a champagne party to toast the elder Saarinen when a telegram came in to correct the mistake.
5. The arch is as high as it is wide.
While it might not look like it, the arch is 630 feet high and 630 feet wide. Since you are not always looking directly at the arch, it creates the illusion that it is much larger than it is wide.
6. The unique tram system was invented by a man with no formal engineering training.
Thanks to the curved shape of the arch, a normal elevator couldn’t get visitors up from the base. Saarinen’s company called the Montgomery Elevator Company in Moline, Illinois to resolve the problem. Dick Bowser, a college dropout whose family was in the elevator business, happened to visit a friend who worked in the company, and that friend put him in touch with the architect. Bowser was asked to design the system in just two weeks. His solution was a tram, which consisted of an elevator and a Ferris wheel – this is exactly the system that lifts visitors to the top of the arch today.
7. Presidents cannot go to the top – except for President Eisenhower.
The Secret Service has forbidden all presidents to climb the Gateway Arch for security reasons – it is a very narrow, closed room, after all. The only exception was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the contract to build the arch in 1954. In 1967, when he was 77 years old, the former president visited St. Louis to deliver a speech. A trip to the top was not on his itinerary, but when he showed up to the memorial early (after it had closed to the public) he insisted on taking the tram up.
8. The current renovation of the arch is more than twice the cost of the original construction.
When the arch was built in the early 1960s, it cost $ 13 million to build, or more than $ 100 million today, adjusted for inflation. The arch is currently under renovation for $ 380 million, including renovating the park, expanding the museum, adding a cafe, and raising the riverside to prevent flooding. The five-year project will be completed in July.