In the thirties, St. Louis – the seventh largest city in America – was struggling to revitalize its riverfront district. City leaders determined that the best course would be to build something iconic and set aside some $30 million for what they dubbed the “Jefferson Memorial.” Twelve years later, on the other side of World War II, the city had managed to create a very large gravel lot. The long-delay project became a competition to fill that space: The city solicited proposals from a broad array of firms and selected an audacious and iconoclastic design by Eero Saarinen, the not-at-all-famous son of famed architect Eliel Saarinen. The Gateway Arch, a 630-foot-tall, 43,000-ton steel parabola, would embody the spirit of St. Louis while attracting new visitors and bringing a struggling neighborhood back to life.
Well, that was the idea anyway. Though the arch – referred to during construction as a “giant croquet wicket” and “the backdoor to the East” by local critics – did become the proud symbol of the city, the city itself spent the rest of the century struggling and shrinking. Today, St. Louis is the 58th largest city in the U.S. and the modest downtown area around the arch stands in contrast to the vision of bold progress the structure embodies. Architectural historian Tracy Campbell, author of “The Gateway Arch,” a book about the monument’s construction, says that juxtaposition creates confusion among visitors.
“When people go there, I can see that they’re confused about what it means because it’s less about the place and more of a testament to the 20th century, a period when we could pursue massive public works,” says Campbell, pointing out that the idea of clearing 40 city blocks for a monument would be dismissed out of hand by a modern American city’s planning board. “We built the arch when we were going to the moon.”
Today, American architectural ambition has been curtailed by political concessions and what Campbell describes as a renewed focus on neighborhood life, but the masterpieces created during the century we spent building on a titanic scale remain some of the most interesting destinations in America. Like the Gateway Arch, which Campbell calls “the sixties embodied,” other structures tell the tale of the era in which they were build and the idealize future they represented.
Here are the buildings that concretize – sometimes literally – the history of American ambition. Sometimes the best way to look back is to look up.