(Photo credit: Gateway Arch, courtesy Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, NPS, Flickr Creative Commons)
Every year, a non-profit group called the World Monuments Fund issues a report that lists monuments around the world at risk from war, economic development, environmental impact, or just plain old structural degradation. The organization is committed to preserving endangered historic, architectural and cultural sites, and the annual report is its main opportunity every year to raise awareness about the dangers to famous sites of historic or cultural interest. This year’s report, the 2014 World Monument Watch, was released on Tuesday. It lists 67 sites in 41 countries—including six in the United States and four in the UK. The best-known American example of a monument under threat is St. Louis’ famous Gateway Arch, which apparently is showing signs of serious corrosion.
The official name of the Gateway Arch is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and it has been run by the National Park Service since it was built. The Arch is part of a riverfront complex that stands at the spot on the west bank of the Mississippi where St. Louis was founded. It includes an underground visitor center and a museum. But it’s the Arch that everyone comes to see. The World Monuments Fund on its web site dryly remarks on the Arch’s national and international significance, standing “as a symbol of westward expansion in the United States and as an icon of mid-century modernism.” But beyond that, as monuments go it’s about as big as you can get, and its size means it cannot be ignored. Its size—combined with its simple-yet-arresting design—is what instantly made it a widely recognized symbol associating it intimately with the city on which it stands. Sports fans across the country who tune into any major league game being held in St. Louis are going to see the Arch again and again on the telecasts. Seeing that image innumerable times over the years, such fans might have learned it has something to do with “westward expansion,” whatever that is. But regardless, they all know it’s there. As with the Sydney Opera House in Australia’s largest city—another example of a mad mid-20th century design that has become beloved—it’s hard to imagine St. Louis without the Arch.
First conceived in the 1930s, amidst the Great Depression, the idea was to build a monument to commemorate America’s expansion to the West (St. Louis was the departure point for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery in 1804). More practically, it was also seen by local leaders as a means to seek federal dollars, reinvigorate St. Louis’ crumbling riverfront, and provide jobs at a time of economic hardship. Congress allocated some funds for the project and a federal commission was appointed to oversee things. But it wasn’t till after WWII that things got underway in any serious fashion, when a Finnish-American architect (Eero Saarinen) and a German-American structural engineer (Hannskarl Bandel) won a design competition with their daring idea for a massive arch.
The Arch didn’t actually get built until the mid-1960s. At that time it used groundbreaking design and construction techniques—a stretched-skin design with stainless steel exterior and a carbon steel interior—to rise 630 feet (192m) above St. Louis. The Arch even provided a means for visitors to get to the observation deck at the top—a tiny rail system of tram capsules that send visitors up inside the body of the structure. This is all very cool in a Jetsons kind of way. Fifty years on, the Arch is no longer just a symbol of St. Louis or America’s 19th century westward expansion. It’s also an amazing representation of the go-ahead, can-do-anything spirit that prevailed in America in the mid-20th century—a spirit that seems to have drifted away in recent years. And now, almost 50 years on, the structure is beginning to degrade.
The World Monuments Fund web site outlines the problem: With the Arch, as with many contemporary structures, “the preservation of twentieth-century materials and structural designs has proven challenging. The unusual shape and extreme height of the Arch compound these difficulties, as do economic trends that have led to decreased government funding for the stewardship of national monuments.” So it comes back to funding. The Arch is suffering from corrosion, and because it was such an experimental design to begin with, it’s going to cost a lot of money to fix it. The National Park Service isn’t exactly flush with cash, so who will fund this renovation.
The Arch isn’t about to fall down tomorrow, but it does need work, or eventually it will become structurally unsound and will have to be closed down. I hope it never comes to that. More broadly, we’re living in a country whose infrastructure is crumbling. How hard is it going to be to find the money to fix the Gateway Arch when we can’t find the money to fix roads and bridges?
In future posts I’ll write about some of the other examples highlighted in the report.
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (2014). World Monuments Fund. Available at http://www.wmf.org/project/jefferson-national-expansion-memorial.
What made the 2014 World Monument Watch List and why? (2013). PBS News Hour. Available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/10/what-made-the-2014-world-monument-watch-list-and-why.html