St. Louis’ iconic Gateway Arch poised for 50th birthday
St. Louis — A half century ago, workers gingerly hoisted into place the final of 142 stainless steel sections of the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch — the shimmering tribute to President Thomas Jefferson and pioneers for whom St. Louis served as a gateway to the West. The world’s tallest arch and St. Louis’ famously defining feature, along the Mississippi River’s western bank, officially celebrates its 50th birthday on Wednesday. Here’s a look at the Arch’s history, plans for its anniversary and the makeover being undertaken at the site, which the National Park Service says drew roughly 2 million visitors last year.
The Arch through the years
The wicket-shaped landmark, the nation’s tallest man-made monument and the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds, cost less than $15 million to build after construction began in early 1963. Though workers’ efforts often were without safety wires or harnesses, none was killed during construction. The landmark, its visitor center and its clickety, cramped north-leg tram opened to visitors in mid-1967. The site’s Museum of Westward Expansion was ready nine years later, and the park’s landscaping was finished in 1981.
By most accounts, the Arch has aged relatively gracefully. A Chicago firm that sent that last year sent climbers rappelling down the landmark’s legs to take samples of mysterious stains on the Arch’s metal skin concluded in a report released in April that the discoloration was caused by the landmark’s original construction, residue accumulation and, closer to the base, vandalism and graffiti.
Although the National Park Service has said scrubbing the monument isn’t feasible, last spring’s report concluded the Arch is structurally sound and in “serviceable condition, without significant structural distress or deterioration.
A ceremony at 11 a.m. Wednesday near the Arch will mark the moment its last, uppermost piece joined the landmark. St. Louis’ mayor and National Park Service officials will speak about the anniversary, and visitors can get a glimpse of the grounds’ renovations. Up to 1,000 free cupcakes will be distributed, and rides to the top of the Arch will cost just $1 — the price of tram tickets from 50 years earlier. Riders will get lapel pins and “I Went to the Top” certificates patterned after ones handed to the landmark’s 1967 visitors.
At the Missouri History Museum in the city’s sprawling Forest Park, sheet-metal and iron workers, electricians and engineers who helped erect the Arch a half century ago gather from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. to offer their recollections of the project. At noon, National Park Service historian Bob Moore joins landscape architect Susan Saarinen — daughter of the Arch’s late designer, Eero Saarinen — for a panel discussion.
The Arch and its grounds are undergoing an ambitious $380 million renovation that includes a planned 46,000-square-foot expansion of the visitor center and a redesigned, modernized Museum of Westward Expansion, both located underneath the monument. The makeover of the grounds also includes creating a park atop a concrete-and-steel lid being built over an interstate highway between the Arch and the city’s downtown, thereby expanding the green space.
More than 900 donors — from businesses to individuals, families and regional foundations — have contributed roughly $212 million in private funding for the project, according to the nonprofit CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, the renovation effort’s coordinator. Other funding has or will come from a potpourri of sources including state tax breaks, grants, some sales tax revenues and the National Park Service, which is overseeing the project.