St. Louis prepares for yearlong Interstate 64 shutdown

Monday, December 31, 2007

ST. LOUIS -- It hardly seems a subject for nostalgia, but for those who commute on Interstate 64 in St. Louis, now is the time for one last look before a stretch of the roadway from Ballas Road to Interstate 170 closes for about a year starting Wednesday.

Another stretch closes for most or all of 2009 as part of a project expected to significantly improve the interstate but create a two-year traffic nightmare for commuters.

By 2010, gone will be familiar sites of the highway built from 1936 to 1946. Hand-designed bridges will give way to overpasses designed with computers. Ramps built when cars drove 35 mph will be replaced with longer ones built for today's speeds.

For some, it's like saying goodbye to an old friend.

Take the white-knuckle experience of exiting onto Lindbergh Boulevard. Bill Sheridan of Des Peres enjoys the challenge.

"That's part of the game," he said. "For us who are from here, we're used to it. We know all the rules, who gets to go first and all that. To us, we see order."

When the roadway was built in the 1930s, the intent was to relieve other east-west roads in St. Louis County at a time when residents were moving there in droves.

The 14 miles between Lindbergh Boulevard and the Missouri River opened to traffic in 1938, rolling through what was then cornfields and new subdivisions. It was quickly dubbed the "Daniel Boone Expressway."

Extending the expressway east to Brentwood Boulevard proved challenging. The buildup to World War II resulted in labor shortages. Manpower was so short that the contractor building the McCutcheon Street overpass asked permission to use German prisoners of war as general laborers. The federal government said no.

Eventually, the new highway opened. Three lanes in most places, it was a favorite for Sunday drives. A grassy median at Lindbergh allowed for two giant globelike sculptures commemorating Charles Lindbergh's first solo flight across the Atlantic.

"It was a parkway," said Thomas Gubbels, senior historic preservation specialist for the Missouri Department of Transportation. "It was something designed for scenic traffic."

Still, there were flaws. At first, the highway had a reversible lane with a red or green light over it indicating which direction was open. Drivers called it the "suicide lane" for good reason.

"A lot of people didn't see those lights," Gubbels said.

In the late 1950s, the Daniel Boone Expressway was connected with what was then called the Red Feather Expressway east of Richmond Heights. The new stretch was called Highway 40.

That changed everything. County residents could take it straight to jobs downtown. It didn't take long before the highway became congested.

The statues came down at Lindbergh in the 1970s for highway widening. Also removed were the bridge's decorative handrails and lighting system. Soon, green signs covered much of the detail work on the art deco overpasses. Other ornamentation was lost to repairs and modifications.

In 1987, Highway 40 became Interstate 64 between Interstate 270 and the Mississippi River. Soon after, the highway department wanted to widen the highway and rebuild interchanges from Hampton Avenue to Spoede Road, but an outcry over taking part of Forest Park stalled that project.

That left some of the exits and entrances as they've always been -- difficult to use, but a distinct part of the highway's character.

Jon Cornwell of University City is co-founder of the Web site, dedicated to Highway 40 nostalgia. He said he'll miss the stone stamp marking the bridge over Clayton and Warson roads, and losing the view of leafy neighborhoods, soon to be blocked by sound walls.

"It's not going to have as much character," Cornwell said.

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