The Fascinating History of Gateway Arch
Towering 630 feet above the Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch of St. Louis is one of the great iconic sights in America.
This “Gateway to the West” is the tallest monument in the nation and the second tallest monument in the world after the Eiffel Tower. It’s located in Gateway Arch National Park, an area formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. A legendary engineering feat, the arch celebrates the accomplishments of the diverse 19th century pioneers who shaped the region.
The monument is a wonder, composed of 886 tons of stainless steel modeled into a seamless arch. It was assembled with such extraordinary precision that if either leg had deviated 1/64 of an inch, the two sides wouldn’t have met at the middle. The foundation goes 60 feet into the ground and is designed to withstand high winds and earthquakes. This pride of St. Louis has a fascinating history.
Plans for the monument were envisioned in 1933 by civic leader Luther Ely Smith as a way to revitalize the waterfront of St. Louis. After sharing his idea with the mayor and city officials, Smith was appointed to head a committee to explore the prospect of creating the memorial and transforming the waterfront into a park. This committee was to play a pivotal role in making Smith’s dream become a reality.
In 1934, the federal government took an interest in the proposed park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill mandating that the United States Territorial Expansion Memorial Commission devise plans for a national monument honoring the men who made the westward expansion of the country possible. The President wished to pay homage to Thomas Jefferson, who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, and the great explorers Lewis and Clark along with many frontiersmen.
Funds for the project followed in 1935; the governor of Missouri signed an act enabling cities with a population of 400,000 or more to issue bonds to help pay for federal historic projects. This legislation led to the procurement of local funds. However, it sparked controversy when some citizens felt the money should be used for more practical purposes. In the end, local money was added to congressionally appropriated funds for the monument, the expense of which ultimately totaled $13 million.
Before the park and memorial could be built, the existing urban sprawl along the central waterfront had to be removed. Demolition to clear the land began in 1939. The move ignited opposition because property owners spoke out against losing their businesses. This part of the city was home to an array of companies including Columbia Incandescent Lamp and St. Louis Candy, as well as the residence of Dr. Joseph Lawrence, the inventor of Listerine. Between 1939 and 1942, 40 blocks of buildings were bulldozed – with the exception of two historic sites, one being the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, known as the Old Cathedral.
After the land was cleared, St. Louis held an architectural competition to find the best design for a monument. The $40,000 prize was a tremendous sum of money in the 1940s. The winner was Eero Saarinen, a noted Finnish-American architect who had designed several prestigious projects including the United Nations building in New York City. His stainless steel arch design trumped the 172 other competitor entries, including one from his father, Eliel. Saarinen’s design was chosen for its simplicity and beauty. Another winning factor was that his design was compatible with the area’s Old Court House, a lovely Greek Revival structure that was the site of Dred Scott slavery cases during the 1800s.
The telegram notifying Saarinen of his win went to his father by mistake. Reportedly, Eliel opened a bottle of champagne. Word from an apologetic official came two hours later, informing him that his son was the actual winner. The elder Saarinen magnanimously responded by uncorking another bottle of champagne to celebrate his son’s honor.
Construction of the arch involved two surprises, one negative and one positive. Although it was expected to generate more than 5,000 jobs, only 100 workers were needed. This disappointment was tempered by the monument’s safety record; an actuarial firm had predicted construction would result in 13 fatalities. Fortunately, no lives were lost.
Landscaping began a few years after the massive arch was completed in 1965. It was done according to the collaborative plans of Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley. Once the project was finished, the grounds became one of the most significant contemporary landscapes in the United States. It’s a testament to the talent of two of the 20th century’s most influential designers.
The arch and surrounding grounds were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The attraction holds a place among other beloved symbols of our national identity such as the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Three million people visit the arch every year. Many go to the observation area at the top to savor thrilling views that extend up to 30 miles in either direction. An inspiring attraction, the arch, together with the associated interactive museum, commemorates the valor and vision of those who paved the way to live in this part of the county. Parks surrounding the arch have beautiful trees and walkways, making it a pleasant place to linger and marvel at the architectural feat.
The Gateway Arch has received several awards, including the American Institute of Architects 25-Year Award in 1990. This honor expressed why the monument holds a special place in the hearts of people who live in St. Louis, the Midwest and, indeed, all of America. It stated that the arch is “a symbolic bridge between East and West, past and future, engineering and art” that “embodies the boundless optimism of a growing nation.”