The Saint Louis Gateway Arch is the tallest arch in the world measuring 630 ft wide, by 630 ft tall; taking nearly 1,076 steps to reach the top. When entering the city it is nearly impossible to miss the glimmering mass of steel nested at the bank of the Mississippi. The Arch is the trademark of Saint Louis and its novelty extracts a range of deeply rooted meanings in its history, its role in the community, and its hidden ties to religion. Each lens offers a unique story of the Arch, and contributes to the local and national significance of this beautiful monument. A compilation of these pieces offers a well rounded understanding of the Arch’s symbolic development.
The Arch was built on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a site along the Mississippi that was made in 1935. Luther Ely Smith came up with the idea of constructing a memorial to revive the riverfront and to symbolize the story of America’s westward expansion. A nationwide design competition was held from 1947–1948. Eero Saarinen’s steel Arch won and would be the memorial celebrating the accomplishments of early pioneers. St. Louis celebrated with a groundbreaking on June 23, 1959. Saarinen perfected his design over the next few years and workers began excavating the grounds in 1961. It took “steadfast” coordination to put each piece of the Arch into place. At last, the final section at the top of the Arch was secured on October 28, 1965.
Less than a decade later, the Museum of Westward Expansion opened underneath the Arch, and featured exhibits on St. Louis’s role in the Gateway to the West. Improvements to the monument continued. For example, in 2001 engineers added floodlights to illuminate the Arch exterior. The National Parks Service thought that recognizing the Arch as the "gateway to the west" was symbolic enough to build a park and national monument at the site. As a national monument, the Arch is in the company of Yellowstone Park and Mount Rushmore in the national imagination.
In addition to its national meaning and significance, the Arch continually serves as a trademark of St. Louis. But the range of meaning has expanded to include contemporary culture and personal pride, all while inspiring the continuation of pioneer ideologies. In addition to hosting the Museum and Tourist Visitor Center, the park grounds have been dedicated to Thomas Jefferson as a memorial to his death and his role in the Louisiana Purchase leading to the Gateway of the West.
Since then, the Arch has been a centralized location to host major holiday celebrations and other festivities--including Fair St. Louis, the Annual New Years Firework Display, and Winterfest at the Arch (in support of The Blues). Particularly, for St. Louis natives the Arch symbolizes much more than American or Saint Louis History--it represents the 314; home. St. Louisans use this space to trademark mementos such as prom, wedding ceremonies, and shoot music videos of local rappers. Additionally, it is also a frequent final destination for civil movement marches such as March to the Arch, Women's Equality March, and Science March. This means the monument serves it purpose, and does this well by fostering hope going forward, and lending a purposeful space to those in pursuit of a new tomorrow, in the shoes of Lewis and Clark.
It is clear to many members of the surrounding St. Louis community that the Arch is more than just national monument. It represents more than just a great history, and a proud city. The St. Louis Gateway Arch is the pinnacle of a social religion that has long gone unnoticed, a temple for a congregation of deeply loyal subjects. Social religion is a phenomenon not commonly recognized, especially in a community so deeply rooted in the classic ideas of Christianity. Just off the park campus lies The Basilica of St Louis, King of France, which was the first Catholic Church erected west of the Mississippi (and pictured in the postcard above). The church was such an iconic representation of St. Louis, that when plans for the construction of the Arch were underway, there was much consideration for making the church part of the national park. It is not just the history of St. Louis that furthers the idea of the Arch being a religious hub, but what the Arch was built represents.
Newspaper editor John O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" in 1845 to deter those who opposed the idea of westward expansion. O'Sullivan stated, “It is our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Manifest Destiny became a nationwide belief that God blessed the growth of the American nation. Many settlers ventured west to spread their traditions and their institutions, while at the same time enlightening "primitive" natives, under the impression that it was God’s will to do so. This divine call is what the St. Louis Gateway Arch was intended to memorialize, to symbolize, and embody. Even though these traditional ideas of religious representations do resonate from the very foundation of the Arch, not many would ever identify the monument as having any kind of religious significance. Even fewer would recognize the social religion that is practiced at park so frequently. It may not be a common perception, but there are so many aspects that relate the arch and its park to religion in a social manner.
The Arch’s park itself is a church, a temple, a place where the community comes together to celebrate, to share with the community, and to participate in an experience of belonging. There are texts and scripture that community abides by, such as the Missouri constitution, and the laws, regulations, and rules dictated by the city and park. A sense of policing can be felt by fellow St. Louisans, which contributes to the way one carries his/her self while in public, and manipulates his/her behavior, thus creating social norms. The Arch, in its own right, is a shrine, an altar to gather around. It is a place where ceremonies and rituals are conducted in a manner that the entire congregation can participate in. A place where the community comes together to achieve common goals, and to help make the world a better place in some small way. Even though social religion may be the least common interpretation of the happenings at the St. Louis Gateway Arch, it could be the most relevant.
The St. Louis Gateway Arch isn’t just a national monument, it is a stamp of pride for the St. Louis community, and true wonder for all who come to see it. Today it remains a significant icon to all who dwell in the greater St. Louis area. The community utilizes the Gateway Arch in many ways throughout the year. It not only stands as a symbol of westward expansion, but also a culmination of social religion. Through our research of a great history and a colorful present, we have explored the vast significance of the St. Louis Gateway Arch and sought out its deep religious meaning.
Researched and written by Leigh-Ann Kesper and Wendy Teal.