Monday, September 7, 2009

Beisbol Pt. X: Saarinen's masterpiece


To me, the most beautiful of structures: Gateway Arch.
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Thursday, August 13: Though the theme of this vacation was baseball, we began and ended it, interestingly enough, celebrating two of America's greatest journeys of discovery. We started a week before at a museum dedicated to the exploration of space and now closed it out in St. Louis, where the Parks Service honored explorer Lewis & Clarks's two-year "Corps of Discovery" documenting the territory America acquired from France in 1803's Louisiana Purchase.

Since its completion in 1965, the centerpiece of the "Jefferson National Expansion Monument" has been the Gateway Arch, a graceful monument of stainless steel towering 630 feet above the Mississippi River and downtown St. Louis. The arch immediately became the symbol of St. Louis; the development of the monument along the waterfront led to revitalization of the near downtown as well.

I'd been intrigued about the arch since I was but a wee kid, when my dad returned from a business convention with a small plastic model of the arch for me. It was mind-boggling to me that it was taller than a 60-story building, let alone that it could stand without falling over. And just how did people ride elevators up its curving legs?

To me, the Arch is one of man's most beautiful structures. Exceedingly simple in concept, it was a bitch to construct. Finnish Architect Eero Saarinen, known for his flowing mid-century commissions such as the terminal at D.C.'s Dulles International Airport and TWA's flight center at Kennedy Airport in New York, won the competition for the centerpiece monument for the new park in 1957; it wasn't completed until 1963. Saarinen never lived to see the finished product, having died in 1961.

Several aircraft have flown through the arch; one person, supposedly, has climbed it using suction cups. One unfortunate bastard parachuted onto the top of it in 1980; his plan was to remove his first parachute and then BASE jump using a second chute, but a gust of wind knocked him over after landing up top, and he slid down the side of the arch, splatting on the ground below.
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The Arch, from the entry way to the Millenium hotel.
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The Arch was a short 10 minute walk from our hotel. It gleamed in the morning sunlight, casting a long shadow across the parkway. We'd been cautioned to make early reservations for the elevator ride to the top; we arrived well before our 9:30 time to a nearly-empty entry visitor's center, located underground between the arch's two legs. The center hosts two gift shops (still selling the same plastic model of the arch my father brought me 40 years earlier); a movie theater, and a museum offering interpretative and animatronic displays about the settling of the west. A separate exhibition on the history of baseball in St. Louis was also underway--imagine that! St. Louis was the western frontier of Major League baseball until the mid-1950s, and over the years had hosted a half-dozen professional teams. The baseball exhibit was quite informative; I couldn't say the same with the display of artifacts with little written elaboration about western expansion.
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Bug's eye view of the welded-edge of the arch. . .
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The Boys outside the arch. . .
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We needn't have worried about the "big lines." There wasn't one, not at 9:30. We headed into the queue for the elevator, and soon climbed into the cramped, tiny egg-shaped "pods." They had five seats, but would be hard-pressed to hold five adults. The white paint and indirect lighting gave a distinctly space-age-yet-retro feeling: it felt like something out of the transport pods from the movie 2001. The doors closed and we clanked and jerked our way to the top in the four-minute trip, the elevators using the same principle of a Ferris wheel with a gimbled car to keep us properly oriented.
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Inside the elevator pod. . .
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Amazingly similar: the transport pod from 2001. . .
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thankfully, the Hal 9000 didn't control our elevator. . .
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The observation are is narrow, as you'd expect, maybe 8 feet wide. You can look out through narrow "gunslot" windows on a spectacular view of St. Louis, down below and to the west, and the river and whatever remains of bombed-out East St. Louis to the east. After about 15 minutes, you've seen what you need to see and you're ready to leave. When we exited the elevator, around 10:15, the lines had grown all the way out the front door of the visitor's center.
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The boys check out the view from above. . .
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View of the old Courthouse from the Arch. . .
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Old wool uniforms on display at the Jefferson Expansion visitor's center. Probably uncomfortable as hell in the summer!
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Boys checking out actual seats from old Sportsman's Park, home of the Cardinals until 1965. . .
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We hit the road for the six-hour trip to Tulsa, stopping only for fuel and Steak & Shake. The kids were kept occupied by DVD's and their Nintendo DS consoles--the perfect narcotic for a long car trip. I detoured off the freeway near Joplin, taking the back roads through the ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma. A few miles away was Commerce, hometown of Mickey Mantle. The high school's ballpark is named for the Mick, and a sign on the outskirts of town promises a future Mickey Mantle Museum. Mantle died in 1995; the sign looks at least that old, and with each passing year, I'd guess the chances of the building ever becoming a reality fades a bit more.
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I. in the backseat, absorbed in "The Magnificent Starfy". . .
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and E. playing baseball on the DS. . .
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Commerce, Oklahoma: hometown of Mickey Mantle. .
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We overnighted in Tulsa, and the next monring, as we approached the Red River, we started pulling in Dallas radio stations; the number of clueless drivers started increasing expotentially as well, so we knew it wouldn't be long until we were back in Texas. I know we call it "home," but it sure doesn't feel that way, even after 15 years.

1 comment:

MaryDK said...

B., thank you so much for taking the time to record our family vacation!! I know I was there but it's so much fun to read all about it, brings good memories :o)
Mary