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I am a writer, a mom, and a friend. In this blog, I explore all of that. Please join me in this conversation by leaving a comment on anything you've read. Or follow me on Facebook @ Beth von Behren (author).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Yes I Did Work at the Arch

As I came over a rise today on Page Avenue, I was able to see the downtown skyline, and the Arch, for a couple of seconds. I always forget that this high point exists on Page, so it always surprises and delights me. There is just something really wonderful about seeing the Arch, in the distance or up close. It is a marvel.

For two summers during college, I had a great job at the Arch as a motion-picture projectionist. They paid me prevailing union wages, which was good money for a college kid, and I didn't really have a lot to do other than start the film, switch reels, and manually rewind the film.  So after closing the theatre doors and starting the automated projector to play "Monument to a Dream," I often wandered around the place. Sometimes, I found myself sitting on the steps under the Arch, just staring up at it.

From every angle, the design is captivating. As a non-mathematician, I often wondered that it didn't just fall over. I read an article in the Post-Dispatch once in the early 80s that depicted with graphic detail what would happen to the Arch if downtown became ground zero during a nuclear attack. It would essentially fold backwards into the river with the force of the blast.  Short of a cataclysmic event, however, the engineers who designed it expected it to stand for hundreds and hundreds of years.

More recently, the Post-Dispatch has investigated and reported on some serious care-taking issues at the Arch. One article, "Corrosion Goes Unchecked," was accompanied by photographs of rust and pools of water at the base of the legs that maintenance crews try to keep cleaned up. This occurs in an area workers can access. Other corrosion, higher up and on the outer side of the stainless steel skin, is more difficult to reach.

The problem was first noted in 2005. A structural engineer told the Post it was possible that corrosion inside the steel walls is “bleeding through failed welds and staining the glimmering outside surface." It could be an aggressive corrosion, the article said, but there is no way to know because no maintenance records exist. The 2005 report recommended regular photographs be taken to document the problem over time, but apparently this has not been done.

There are plans in place to overhaul the Arch grounds, build access to downtown across Interstate 70, and add amusements and other things to the riverfront. But the anchor for all this is supposed to be the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, that structure we lovingly call the Arch. It doesn't take a genius to see the futility of planning to improve the grounds if you don't first make sure the Arch will remain standing.

My two summers working at the Arch coincided with the first two years of Fair St. Louis, then called the VP Fair. The early years of the Fair were problematic. In 1982, severe rain and huge crowds reduced the Arch grounds to a gigantic mudslide. People waded in the reflecting ponds, killing the goldfish. The grounds were covered in trash and broken glass. The irrigation system was damaged.  Trees and grass had to be replaced, at a cost of about $120,000 (in 1982 dollars). Eventually, civic leaders promised to repair the damage and put plans into place to make sure it didn't happen again.

Our boss at the time, the park’s superintendent Jerry Schober, wrote a letter to Arch employees. The complete contents of what he said are now lost to time, but the part I remember is this: "I know how much you all love this park." The funny thing is that I didn't realize how much until I read his letter. I do love that park. I think most St. Louisans love it. Ask any native and he or she is very likely to have a story about the first time they took the tram to the top, or the first wedding they attended under the Arch, or how wild the river looks from the top of the staircase when it's at flood stage. Or maybe they will tell you, as I would, about the Chuck Berry concert under the legs of the Arch during that 1982 VP Fair. Any native will tell you they love this city, they love Chuck Berry, and they love the Arch.

Fixing the corrosion problem may not be easy.  The original engineers made no plans for exterior maintenance access.  Use of scaffolds, cranes, ropes, or a helicopter all have serious drawbacks.  Here's what I think: We are a smart species. If we could figure out how to build such an amazing thing, we can figure out how to fix it, and we can figure out how to pay for it.

I remember seeing the partially built legs of the Arch when I was four years old. My children have never known a time when the Arch wasn't there to welcome them home from a journey. I would like to know that my great grandchildren will be able to tell their children stories about the first time they rode to the top and what a majestic and beautiful thing it was.


  1. This is lovely. You are very lucky to have had the experience of working there. I do have many of those memories you mentioned. I was there in the great mudslide of '82. It was nasty. (For the record, I did not wade in the reflecting pools, etc. As hot as it was that day, I kind of wish I had!) And there was another memorable Chuck Berry concert under the Arch, in '86, I think. The last memorable event I attended there was the Obama rally just prior to the election. That's where my then-12-year-old decided he wanted to spend his birthday so he "could see history." (Never mind that all we could see of Obama was a bit of his right elbow, except on the big screens!). And there's nothing like flying back into St. Louis from the east and seeing the Arch below you. It is a majestic and beautiful thing, and I've always been astounded at how many St. Louis natives have never taken part of the experiences it offers.

  2. Great commentary, Beth! I envy you for having worked at the Arch. As a native, too, I have many fond memories, too-- concerts, fairs, trips to the top, showing it off to relatives and friends, etc. I LOVE the Arch, enjoy seeing it from different vantage points (including the rise on Page), miss it when I am away, and love seeing it when I return. When I lived in the city I used to make sure I caught a glimpse of it every day. I think it is the neatest thing ever built, seriously! I grew up at "Hi-Pointe" at Skinker and Clayton Roads and was able to watch the legs coming together as it was built.
    I do have some experiences that I think are relatively unique. A father of a friend of mine was close friends with Jerry Schober, and knowing my love for the Arch, arranged for me walk up the steps inside the Arch to the top, accompanied by my friend and a ranger. Incredible! Also, my uncle is an architect who worked for Saarinen, and worked on some design elements of the Arch (mainly the space underneath-- fountain, museum, etc.) When I was six we visited Saarinen's office in Detroit and saw models of the Arch and tram, before construction started. Later I remember my uncle visiting us while it was being built and going to the Arch to take the outside elevator, then an outside ladder, to the top when the legs where about half-way up! I can go on forever about the Arch. Thanks for posting this!

  3. Thank you for sharing these memories! You taught me some St. Louis history...thank you!