Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy Birthday, You Beautiful Catenary Curve

On October 28, 1965, the Gateway Arch, a part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, was completed. I was 5 years old.

One of my earliest memories is being downtown with my dad, standing on the parking lot of the Old Cathedral, looking at the Arch under construction. I remember it clearly but I don't know what year it was. 1964, probably.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Arch. Some people think that it straddles the Mississippi. It doesn't. It stands on the west bank, the Gateway to the West.

Recently I was reading The Lightening Thief, the first of Rick Riordan's wonderful series for young people in which the gods of Ancient Greece live among us today, still wreaking havoc on mortals. The 6th grade hero Percy (short for Perseus) is threatened by a mythical creature while he visits the observation deck at the top of the Arch. The monster blows a hole in the side of the Arch - no small feat since the Arch is constructed of double-walled sections of carbon steel on the interior and stainless steel on the exterior held together by welded high strength steel rods, with the interior space filled with concrete. In any event, Percy has only seconds to figure out how to escape the monster.

I glanced at the park ranger and his family. The little boy was hiding behind his father's legs. I had to protect these people. I couldn't just ... die. I tried to think, but my whole body was on fire. My head felt dizzy. I had no sword. I was facing a massive fire breathing monster and its mother. And I was scared.

There was no place left to go, so I stepped to the edge of the hole. Far, far below, the river glittered.

Of course he jumps into the river and escapes the monster.

What a great scene! Except of course that he wouldn't have reached the river unless he could fly - which he couldn't. So if anyone actually tried that trick they would end up smashed on the grass below. The Arch stands on the banks of the Mississippi, but not right at the water's edge. It is on an elevated piece of ground overlooking the River, the distance of about 1/2 a city block from the water's edge. But for those who don't know the Arch it was a great scene.

Sometimes people make fun of the Arch. They call St. Louis the Wicket City - because the Arch looks like a giant croquet wicket. Someone once proposed that Illinois build a giant croquet ball on the east bank of the Mississippi. But they didn't. Maybe because Cargill wouldn't sell them the ground under their giant grain elevators.

I love the Arch. I love watching it under different lights and, before they figured out how to light it at night, I liked when it was lit only by moonlight. Or lit by the fireworks at the riverfront on the Fourth of July.

As a child watching the construction I had no idea of the bravery of the men who, in the days before safety harnesses were standard gear, gave tangible form to Aero Saarinen's vision. For those who've never seen anything about the design and construction of the Arch, here's a video about it. Imagine yourself standing in the shoes of those iron workers.

Finally, for those who have never been up in the Arch, here's a video I found that shows what it is like at the observation deck at the top and even shows the little pod shaped cars that transport you to the top. Don't worry - there weren't any fire-breathing monsters up there the day this was filmed.