Press-Republican

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August 22, 2010

St. Louis: From frontier to fabulous

Look at a map of the United States and you'll find it hard to believe that St. Louis once marked the frontier.

Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase in 1803 greatly expanded the new nation. The city had grown but little from its founding as a port by the French in 1764 when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their historic expedition here in 1804.

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the area of St. Louis by the Mississippi River the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Depression and war delayed development, but in 1947 Eero Saarinen won an international competition for design of the site. His vision called for simplicity and dignity, with an arch as the key component of a significant monument. Construction began in 1963 and lasted two years.

BEHIND THE DREAM

The Arch, now one of America's best known landmarks, takes the shape of a chain when held at both ends, a so-called catenary curve. At 630 feet, it soars higher than any monument in the country. (For comparison, the Washington Monument measures 555 feet.) There was no way my wife, Marty, and I were going to visit St. Louis without going to the top.

First, however, we'd recommend viewing the documentary "Monument to the Dream." This gave us an appreciation for the challenge of realizing Saarinen's design. Two triangular foundations going down 60 feet into bedrock had to be excavated. Then, piece by piece, units of steel plate (each weighing 50 tons) were maneuvered into place at each end.

Ground cranes could only go as high as 72 feet. After that, ingenious units called creeper derricks had to be constructed at each level to bring up subsequent boxcar-sized pieces of the arch. It's eerie to see film footage of the two still-unjoined legs rising toward an empty gap.

Once the arch had been completed, steel tendons were spliced between the stainless steel exterior and inner carbon steel skins and attached to the foundation. Concrete was then poured between the steel sides to give the necessary strength and stability. Then a "railroad to the sky" was built inside, mixing elements of elevator, streetcar and Ferris wheel technology.

As with, say, building a canal from each end, measurement had to be quite precise to ensure meeting at the middle. Engineers required tolerances within 1/64th of an inch in order to assure a structure that would not only come together satisfactorily, but would move only 18 inches in 150-mph winds. The two unfinished ends had to be jacked apart just enough to allow placement of the final segment.

We got in line at our appointed time for our ride, watched a brief instruction video and entered our capsule. Individual compartments each hold five passengers and constantly right themselves along the way, just as cars do on a Ferris wheel. The trip takes four minutes on the way up, three to come down. The car's adjustments were palpable but not bothersome. Attendants do warn the trip is not for those with claustrophobia.

"From its summit," Saarinen opined, "the public could confront the magnificent river."

It is, indeed, quite the view. Annotated maps denote such nearby St. Louis sights as Busch Stadium, home of baseball's Cardinals; and the Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case was debated in the 1850s. Opposite runs the mighty Mississippi, source of the city's early economy and still iconic in the American mind. From both sides, it's flat as far as the eye can see.

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