The Gateway Arch is Unimpressive

Spread the love

The October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair shares results that 46% of the 1,027 adults polled nationwide find The Gateway Arch the least impressive national landmark.

What an odd question to ask people. But since they asked, Americans are good with natural occurrences like falls or canyons, they’re even good with carving presidents into the side of a mountain. But wholly man-made landmarks are ripe for a shrug.

After an initial wave of irritation that anyone slam on our Arch, I remember that I used to take it for granted. It’s always been there, and once you go up inside of it and catch the view, what’s left?

If I – as a proud St. Louisan – have treated it as the most boring ride at an amusement park, then the views of 1,027 people who may or may not have seen it in person are acceptable. I don’t see the point of The Alamo, because anything to do with war or battles bores and confuses me. But I’ve also never seen it, so it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.

Beauty for Beauty’s Sake

Americans tend to be practical people who want things to serve a purpose. Admirable form like the Chrysler Building also has a function as an office building, so it’s acceptable. Even the Seattle Space Needle (which is only a couple of years older than the Arch), goes a bit beyond being a symbol of its city with a restaurant at the top so it has some function beyond the views.

But the Gateway Arch is basically a modern sculpture with an elevator. Take the elevator up to see views to the east and to the west in a narrow curved space that’s not conducive to hanging out. And back down you go.

It’s truly a symbolic, minimalist art piece. An understanding of geometry, architecture and modern construction makes it impressive. But all those concepts may be too subtle for the room, naturally leading to the theoretical question, “What is the point?”

What is the point of a flower? We understand its benefits for bees, butterflies and the environment, but they are not crucial to human existence. But their beauty and fragrance can move our souls, and many are willing to cultivate them for just that purpose – beauty for beauty’s sake. And that’s The Arch, as well.

The Arch has other purposes beyond the beauty of its facade as the changing light and dark of day dances around it.

It is the symbol of a time in America when power and progress could be poetic.
It is a beacon that guides you without a compass, and takes you to the river.
It is the impossible made real.
It is the strength inherent in grace.
It is eternally modern, but with the erosion of American dignity, it has become nostalgic.

I didn’t realize all these things about The Arch until an early 21st century sunset ride as a passenger in car gave me the opportunity to simply gaze at it. And these realizations hit me fast and forcefully. Suddenly, I “got it.” And I was proud of our City for once having the towering vision to persevere for decades to build something that was only and simply beautiful and symbolic. It’s as simple as a flower, which is a complicated thing.

Taking The Arch for granted is not just a Vanity Fair poll result. How many decades did it take for St. Louis to light it at night? And how many of you in St. Louis have never been near it, touched it, or been up inside of it? None of these things are crucial, but it does stir the soul, and you don’t know how powerful and empowering that can be until it overtakes you.

My absolute favorite summary of the power of the Gateway Arch comes from Joe Thebeau, in the Finn’s Motel song “Eero Saarinen“:

Eero, arching, westward over my city
Stainless and brilliant
Eero, arching, skyward into the universe
Expanding, expansive possibility.


8 thoughts on “The Gateway Arch is Unimpressive

  1. I’ve been around since before the arch was built and I still can’t help but stare at it every time I see it. I’d bet every single one of those people who are “unimpressed” do the same thing. You can’t help it. THAT is why the Arch is just as impressive as anything else on that list.

    I’m wondering if some people call the Arch unimpressive are actually unimpressed by the museum underneath. The museum is not the Arch.

  2. Ouch for the Arch. I have to agree with you that it is not as comparably great as the Grand Canyon, or Niagara Falls, or the Space Needle. I have been to all of these…(I wasn’t overwhelmed by the Rushmore-thing). Still, the Arch has its symbolic purpose and is a sleek, modern monument which seems to fit with the westward expansion theme of the newest, greatest nation in modern history.
    But, maybe the Arch takes a hit because St. Louis doesn’t have the natural beauty of Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon OR anywhere near the striking beauty of Seattle, the Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains, and the sometimes visible and awesome Mt. Ranier? I don’t remember the view of St. Louis at all! Just the elevator ride.
    Have a link on my website that invites people to suggest great architecture from different eras. Would love to know about examples you have in the St. Louis Area…(in Architecture School they only taught us about: “Pruit-Igoe!”
    Sincerely, JM

  3. I love the Arch. I have since I was a tiny kid. I loved going downtown and seeing the Arch, it still thrills me to my core.

    The Arch is beautiful, an engineering marvel. It truly is a “Monument to the Dream” as the document about its building is called.

    Maybe too many Americans have forgotten how to dream.

  4. Well, to be fair, most Americans are utterly ignorant of things engineering and architectural. Heck, almost half of ‘Merkins don’t believe in evolutionary theory and concepts, even though the entirety of bioligical sciences–and therefore, the applied benefits from it, ie., vaccines, anti-biotics, etc.–have allowed them to lead more healthful lives.

    Having said that, as others have no doubt pointed out, these frivolous polls are frivolous.

  5. The on-line [i.e., less scientific than the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair survey, b/c the survey population is only readers of the on-line Vanity Fair, and then only those who choose to vote]version of the poll now has the Alamo as running 77%. Maybe your article motivated disgruntled St. Louisans to go vote?
    The problem with such surveys is that it calls for a choice among the monuments which the poll presented. And even I, as a native St. Louisan, would NEVER call the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls unimpressive! Nor, having visited it, Mount Rushmore. Haven’t seen the Alamo, but we’ve all been fed a steady diet of John Wayne-Fess Parker movies, so those of us of “a certain age” may have a Hollywood-fueled sentimental feeling about it. That leaves the youngest creation on the highly limited list, our Gateway Arch. Put on the spot by such a silly poll, people unlucky enough to have answered the phone & said, “Okay,” to the pollsters, had to pick something, eh? Doesn’t say the Arch is UNimpressive, but that it’s the ‘least’ impressive of their jackass poll. At least the even more absurd “what school course would you eliminate?” question offered “None of the above,” tho their flighty article gleened that gym class gets no respect. Pointless exercise, all around.

  6. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I was the last time I visited the arch. I got the feeling the Park Service is embarrassed by the arch’s minimalist MCM design. I remember visiting the arch in the 70’s and 80’s when and it had a space age feel (similar to old Busch Stadium). The last time I visited, the waiting area to take the elevator is decorated with wooden crates and cut-out’s of ol’timey riverboat people. It reminded me of something you would see at Six Flags.

  7. The Arch, besides serving as local landmark for St. Louisans, also venerates history using (then) cutting edge technology as well as purity of design. With as huge a trend as MCM design is, I wonder if the handful of adults polled were curmudgeons who never liked the thing to begin with or else Walmarties? It’s a pretty minuscule number for a poll, and statistics can lie. That said, I’d love to see the museum recurated, perhaps with a substantial collection of Saarinen’s other designs. And maybe a sleek little restaurant…

  8. The Alamo is not that great; it’s interesting, but in reality it was just a humble Spanish mission that was occupied by a couple hundred of slave-owning separatists. Just ignore the article with its blatant bias.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.