An Outsider’s Vision of the Arch is Ignored

Since the Gateway Arch was completed in 1965 tourists and area residents have grown accustomed to seeing the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, opposite the Arch, as a wasteland of sorts. The bareness is in stark contrast to the grandeur and beauty of the Arch and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park on the St. Louis bank.

From the windows atop the Arch you see East St. Louis.The forsaken acreage, when it is eventually developed, has the potential of spawning billions of dollars worth of development and turning St. Louis’ backyard eyesore into “one great composition,’’’ in the words of Arch designer Eero Saarinen.

So, why hasn’t something happened during these past 45 years? Why haven’t government officials, civic leaders and the news media championed the cause of getting the National Park Service to expand the park and develop the east side so that it could help both East St. Louis and St. Louis prosper?

The river knifes through two states that don’t cooperate with each other. Too, the site is near a flood zone. Other problems, some going as far back as the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis contribute to the lack of cooperation.

The Post-Dispatch crusaded for smoke abatement in 1939 and for “Progress Or Decay’’ in eliminating city slums in the early 1950’s. The current Post-Dispatch editorial page supported development of the east side of the Arch but has not run an editorial campaign.

News accounts and editorials about a recent competition to select a plan to renovate the Arch grounds, to make them more accessible to the public and add amenities, got ample play in the Post and the other media in town. The cost for the makeover is expected to exceed $300 million, to be done in five years and paid for with private and public funds. But plans for the east side of the Arch took a back seat to plans for the Missouri portion of the park.

Eco Arch Plan

There are many who want to see the Arch grounds expanded to the east side. Perhaps no one has been so persistent about it than Saunders “Sandy’’ Schultz, a sculptor and landscape designer who has worked on many national and international projects. For more than 26 years he has been pressing to get his “Eco Arch’’ design considered for the Illinois bank.

Schultz has been joined in the effort by Ted Wofford, a noted St. Louis architect. They haven’t had much success, but they’re not giving up. “We’ve been pretty much ignored,’’ Wofford said. “The key is for the Park Service to establish the park by securing the land.’’ He said it’s time for leaders on both sides of the river to collaborate and think about the region. “East St. Louis is desperate and dying . . .  this is the most valuable land in the Midwest with the view it has. Why give the real estate to the birds?’’ Wofford said.

Wofford said the media, as well as St. Louis community leaders, have “by and large treated the east side as if it doesn’t exist. The role of the media should be to stimulate serious discussion . . . This is the opportunity for something to happen. It takes a concentrated campaign. You can’t have an article every 12 years and expect something to happen.’’

Schultz said: “I’ve been called naïve by many people.’’ He has worked with top architects on design projects in 34 states and such places as Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Moscow. He has taught at many universities including Harvard, Columbia, Penn State and Texas A&M.  Michael Webb, a professor at Columbia University School of Architecture, told Schultz he has “a voice seldom heard today, that of an idealist and dreamer speaking alone in a world of fashion mongers and pragmatists. You give new currency to the term visionary.’’

Critics are less generous. Schultz’s idea for the Illinois side of the arch is dismissed by the professional community.

Schultz and Wofford have had little support from the St. Louis establishment, but Schultz said that’s not unusual. “Many cities want to hire someone from out of town to do projects . . . You can’t be a prophet in your home town.’’

Still, he works to gain support for his plan to create an ecological expanse – the size of 20 football fields – in the shape of the Arch, but larger and lying down. It would rise gently from the riverfront, would have fountains near the bank and be a grassy natural amphitheater. Underneath would be theaters, a museum and restaurants. Surrounding it would be a stream with bridges and a ring of shops, offices, restaurants, hotels and residences. Technology involved would promote environmental awareness; hence the name Eco Arch. Schultz says East St. Louisans can have their hopes lifted when economic development begins. And he wants to pay tribute to the Native Americans who long ago lived in the area and created what is known as Cahokia mounds.

The Casino Queen gambling site could stay but the huge “Gateway Geyser’’ fountain, established by the late Malcolm W. Martin, m

ight have to be moved to a better site, Schultz said. Robert Burley, who was Saarinen’s designer-in-charge for the Arch, said the Eco Arch idea has “genuine merit . . .  East St. Louis is really front-row-center for one of the great urban spectacles in the United States – only the seats have been missing!’’

Saarinen’s daughter, Susan Saarinen, is a landscape architect in Colorado. She said in an e-mail the recent competition to redesign the Arch grounds was not an open competition. “My father would never been allowed to compete in this latest competition. Only large firms capable of fast-tracking this project were invited . . . I hope the city fathers in West St. Louis maintain their commitment to connect to East St. Louis. This should have been done in the first place.’’

Wofford said he and Schultz had a plan to connect downtown St. Louis with the Arch grounds via a pedestrian bridge over Memorial Drive, rather than having to wait for a stoplight. But they couldn’t enter the competition because they were not with a large firm. Schultz says the five-year deadline set for the improvements is too short and disagrees with the recommendation that future development on the Illinois bank should be south of the Arch’s centerline.

Getting Support

One of Schultz’s pursuits is to round up support from Illinois politicians to have Park Services stake out the beginning core of development for the east side. Congress passed a bill in 1992 authorizing expansion of the park to 100 acres on the Illinois side, but nothing has followed except that the Park Service recently proposed a site mostly south of the Arch’s centerline for future development.

Alvin Parks, mayor of East St. Louis, wrote a letter in April to Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, in support of the Eco Arch concept. But Parks said the site the Park Service has recommended “is wrong in its location and shape; thus nothing of any real and lasting value can be created at that site.’’ Parks’ letter was signed by several other elected officials in Illinois, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who is originally from East Louis.

Last year Durbin wrote to Tom Bradley, Superintendent of the JNEM, saying he backed the Eco Arch concept by Schultz and Wofford for a multi-use park, which could be used for a variety of educational and cultural activities “including a beautiful vista symbolizing the unity of the two cities at the gateway to the west.’’ Durbin said the proposal “would be a vital economic development tool for a seriously depressed area.’’

Durbin supported the inclusion of the Eco Arch design in this year’s competition as a way of giving local sculptors and designers a fair chance to compete, said his press secretary, Christina Mulka, and he plans to work with colleagues in Congress from both states, and other government officials, in “turning the Arch into a world-class tourist attraction.’’ Durbin has told Illinois officials he would help raise funds to assist in the relocation of the grain elevator, which has long been the dominant feature across from the Arch.

On June 7, 2009, a long story by Post-Dispatch writer Jake Wagman on the Arch grounds competition mentioned the Echo Arch plan near the bottom.   It described Supt. Bradley as “not a fan of Eco Arch, saying `You really have to question its reality.’’’

Over the years, there has been limited news coverage on developing the east side. But the competition to improve the Arch grounds has caused some recent interest. On Aug. 31, 2009, Eddie Roth, a Post editorial writer,  quoted Salazar, the Interior Secretary, as saying the “park study should help figure out how we can connect up this side of the river to East St. louis as well.’’ Roth then wrote: “The time has come for the Metro East to receive its rightful due – out of fairness and for the sake of the region . . . (and) that Illinois finally shares in Mr. Saarinen’s dream.’’

Schultz said he and Wofford may not be around to see their idea, or anyone else’s, come to fruition. But they would like to see Park Services start the expansion to the east bank. Schultz said such projects take a long time and would have to be done in phases. He noted that even after Saarinen won the competition in 1947 to design and build the Arch, “he still had to sell it to leaders in St. Louis.’

When the memorial to Thomas Jefferson was authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, it was seen as a way to put people to work.

Charles Harris, former dean of the Graduate School of Design and Landscape Architecture at Harvard, recently tried to buoy up the hopes of Schultz and Wofford.

Harris said of the competition: “There is really little shown for the east bank. That is good news . . . take cheer that the winner did not destroy the possibility of realizing a much better future for the East St. Louis bank . . . am I right or wrong to see a light at the end of your long tunnel.’’


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