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.


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.


Back at the foot of the Arch, you'll want to spend time in the Museum of Westward Expansion.

A timeline runs along one wall, covering a period extending from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 through 1900. The panel for 1814 dutifully notes "a decisive American victory is won in the Battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain."

Life-size animated figures of William Clark, Chief Red Cloud and others tell stories of exploration and settlement. Cases hold such artifacts as cowboy gear and the myriad tools needed to blaze and settle a new country. Included are a Concord coach and a covered wagon, those staples of westward travel that served as the SUVs of their era.

One glance at the walls of a sod house conveys quite a sense for life on the prairie. We listened to a ranger talking by a full-size tepee about the tragedy of settlers not listening and learning more from the natives.

Mural-sized photos, maps and quotes depict the 1804-06 journey of Lewis and Clark, an expedition as fascinating to learn about now as it was in the early 19th century.

A temporary exhibit is entitled "Baseball's Gateway to the West." I was surprised to learn that, until 1954, St. Louis represented both the western and southern limits of Major League Baseball.

Religion has been important from the city's founding. When residents talk about the New Cathedral, they're referring to the Basilica of St. Louis, built 1907-14. The so-called Old Cathedral stands closer to the river, just beneath the Arch. It dates to 1834.

Marty toured the Shrine of St. Joseph, known as the Church of Miracles for the survival of a German immigrant near death in 1864 and the prayers that are believed to have ended a cholera epidemic two years later. Hand-carved wooden statues and the elaborate ceiling and altar are highlights. Beautiful stained-glass windows have been painstakingly restored.


A newer place to while away some time is City Garden, a fabulous three-acre wonderland in the heart of downtown. Serpentine stone walls, waterfalls and native species of trees and plants decorate a plaza that includes a collection of sometimes whimsical outdoor sculpture.

A splash plaza with 102 upward-spurting water jets draws both adults and kids on hot days. Oversized bronzes of a Tai Chi practitioner and a scarecrow are among the many appealing artistic creations. For vibrant color, there's a huge Pinocchio and red-painted I-beams that form the Mark di Suvero creation "Aesop's Fables." Those with cell phones can call up commentary.

To give us a taste of area neighborhoods, our friends Debbi and Ed brought us to University City. A somewhat infamous women's magazine publisher named E.G. Lewis began development here in the early 1900s. Envisioning an inspiring (and profitable) place for living, he commissioned Egyptian, Greek Revival and other architectural styles in planning the city core.

Lewis's 1903 Magazine Building now serves as City Hall. It's a striking five-story domed octagonal structure with a central marble staircase. Daytime visitors can view a series of original murals in the rotunda. Nearby former synagogues and churches have been converted to music and arts centers. The Masonic Temple now houses the Church of Scientology.

A walk along the city's central artery, Delmar Boulevard, includes the Delmar Loop Planet Walk, a scaled tour of the solar system. Even at one inch per 80,000 miles, it's quite a way from Neptune to Uranus. Bronze plaques on the sidewalk present the St. Louis Walk of Fame. We learned about quite a few local natives, from photographer Walker Evans to military hero William Tecumseh Sherman to baseball star Dizzy Dean.

Part of the reason Debbi and Ed brought us here, though, was to eat at Blueberry Hill. Locally noted for both its hamburgers and its downstairs concert stage that regularly hosts rock and pop stars, it's as much museum as restaurant. Corridors boast signed photographs from the likes of Little Richard, Keith Richards, Bruce Willis and Barack Obama; there are collections of rock 'n' roll memorabilia, baseball ephemera, comic books, toys, Pez dispensers and more. Atop one wall, you'll even find a platform of vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes.

Dinner, by the way, lived up to expectations. For appetizers, we sampled local favorites like toasted ravioli — think Chef Boyardee meets the deep fryer. The signature hamburgers are fabulous. I washed mine down with a New Belgium 1554 Black Ale.

Don't expect to cover everything on one visit. St. Louis offers much more to see, including restored Union Station, the home of ragtime creator Scott Joplin, the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the fabled Saint Louis Zoo in Forest Park.

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