The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Gateway Arch, a 630-foot-tall catenary curve—designed by Eero Saarinen and clad in stainless steel—stands on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. But really, it stands everywhere in St. Louis.
As you walk downtown, the Arch appears at the end of every broad street, framing rooflines, slipping outside vertical walls, larger and more delicate than any other structure in town. You snap a picture, walk a few blocks, snap another and another. They are all good. There’s no bad side to the Arch. The Arch is perfect.
Should it fall out of sight, some sign or souvenir will remind you where you are, suggesting that you haven’t been anywhere in St. Louis if you haven’t been to the Arch yet. Earrings, keychains, sidewalk stencils, neon beer signs, temporary tattoos, T-shirts. A family of arches for the families that have always flocked to the Arch—albeit, in recent years, in declining numbers. Where once the soaring symbol was a potent enough attraction, now, the city realized, it had become a drive-in, drive-out phenomenon. If St. Louis could get visitors to stay, even for an extra half-day, it could produce the economic equivalent of a second Cardinals baseball season. The answer lay underfoot.
On July 3, a partnership of public and private funders, including the National Park Service, Gateway Arch Park Foundation, Bi-State Development Agency, Jefferson National Parks Association, and Great Rivers Greenway, will officially open what is now known as Gateway Arch National Park, a renovated 91-acre landscape above a renovated and expanded 150,000-square-foot museum and visitor center. The $380 million megaproject—which touched everything but the Arch, which is, as I said, perfect—offers a succinct and positive statement of where we are today in city-building. Public. Accessible. Local. Landscape.
Inside the museum, history has been rewritten to include the peoples already living in what would become the western half of the United States and whose rights were trampled upon by those who used St. Louis as a gateway on their journeys westward, alongside details of the city’s own growth. Outside, landscape architect Dan Kiley’s midcentury design has been preserved, as befits a National Historic Landmark, but improved in its links to and access for everyone in the city.
A grassy land bridge over the highway, designed by project lead Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), creates a seamless transition between Luther Ely Smith Square in front of the courthouse and a new entrance to the Arch and its museum. It is so seamless, so obvious, that, on my tour, Gateway Arch Park Foundation communications director Samantha Fisher stopped me for a moment to marvel. “We are standing on the highway,” she said. Yes, the square named for the father of the Arch was separated from his baby by Interstate 44.
The Arch, seen as a symbol of American ambition, was finally completed in 1965, almost 20 years after Eero Saarinen began his career independent of his famous architect father by winning a design competition for the monument in 1947. It was situated from whence William Clark and Meriwether Lewis launched their 1804 explorations due west, with then-President Thomas Jefferson’s blessing.
Taller than the Washington Monument, the Arch provided a marker at the scale of the nation, far from the East Coast. Clad in stainless steel, its simple form and grand height also gestured at the new American frontier: space.
But while generations of St. Louis leaders supported the Arch, the Arch never embraced St. Louis. An artifact of the highway-building era, a product of eminent domain, the ground at its feet was designed so that you, vacationing tourist, you, suburban visitor, could drive in and drive out. It is easy to argue that now we know better. But we knew better all along. When Ada Louise Huxtable visited St. Louis in 1976, she wrote:
The promised revitalization, in the sense of a downtown of pedestrian scale, alive with people and activities, has never materialized. There are busloads of tourists for the Arch, and cars come and go for events at the stadium, with block‐long garages filling and emptying, but no one lingers because there is nothing to linger for. It is a dull, desolate, computerized commercial landscape.
At that time, she was hopeful about a few new downtown buildings near the Old Courthouse (itself almost lost to the 1940s bulldozer removal that took out a swath of cast-iron industrial architecture), by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, that “make the first real attempt to relate to their surroundings and to suggest human use.” She was wrong about their success and wrong, in fact, that buildings could solve the problem. What St. Louis actually needed was parks.
The first wrong to right was the highway. It should have been obvious, even in the 1940s, that sandwiching a new park between an active rail line and an interstate was a bad planning idea, but did they do it anyway? Yes, and that highway cut off not just the memorial site, but African-American neighborhoods to the south from the river—an all-too-common theme in midcentury urban “planning.”
Though the sightlines from the Old Courthouse through the Arch and over the river to Illinois were clear, the path was not. Luther Ely Smith Square was a flat and neglected plot, with twin paths down the center, flower beds, and plastic benches. Two narrow concrete footbridges spanned the lanes of I-44, leading to Dan Kiley’s two paths to bring you to the bases of the Arch’s legs. In between, a patchy tongue-shaped lawn.
In a 1993 interview quoted in Tracy Campbell’s The Gateway Arch: A Biography (2013), Kiley said he had hoped to inject “more spatial mystery into the whole site,” with stands of tulip poplars that might have eventually grown to 80 feet, “a cathedral” of trees, as well as Euro-style cafes and coffee shops. He wanted to “break down the monumentality to the human scale, to the pedestrian scale,” but was overruled by National Parks Service staff, who instead lined his symmetrical allees three-deep with Rosehill ash trees, planted half the specified number, and left the rest largely blank.
The next wrong was the parking garage: 1,200 spots occupying 7.5 acres of waterfront property next to historic Eads Bridge. St. Louisans will be the first to tell you that its engineering rivals that of the Brooklyn Bridge. Arch visitors would park there, take one of Dan Kiley’s tree-lined paths around shallow lakes one architect swears were inspired by Aalto’s Savoy vase, pop down into the Arch, ascend by tram, then reverse. The route kept most people underground, the park sere and empty.
The third wrong was the museum, where Manifest Destiny was invoked without complexity. One beloved exhibit involved a mouldering, much-petted taxidermy buffalo, and Saarinen was hardly mentioned. Surely the Gateway to the West could do better, both at telling a more complex story of expansion into the frontier, and at explaining why the gateway was here in St. Louis.
A design team led by MVVA, with Cooper Robertson, James Carpenter Design Associates, and exhibition designers Haley Sharpe, won the competition to renovate the park, museum and visitor experience in 2010. Accessibility was paramount, both as a requirement for any federal site and as common sense for a facility often visited by multigenerational road-tripping groups. The only piece of the action the designers couldn’t retrofit were Dick Bowser’s five-person tram cars, which take you on a four-minute journey to the top of the Arch. They are entered via a series of underground poured-concrete steps, and confining even for a five-foot-tall person like me.
Instead, Haley Sharpe created a standalone section of the top of the Arch, with “windows” showing live-cam footage, and parked it in the center of Saarinen’s brutalist entry hall. It’s not as good as the real thing—there’s a definite thrill to feeling the central arc of the Arch swell beneath your feet—but the vertiginous view is exciting whatever the delivery method. Even when you can’t see the Arch because you are within the Arch, its shadow is photogenic.
That arc on the ground gave the design team its cue. Practically everything added has a curve. There’s the tight O of the new visitor center entrance, to which the land bridge directs your feet. A perfect circle of water, suitable for splashing, reflects the sky and positions people on a stone plaza for another photo under the Arch. From there, visitors flow under a minimal glass canopy, fitted precisely to the edge of a grassy berm. If you’ve read Laura Ingalls Wilder, the way the entrance is invisible from above may remind you of the Ingalls family sod house on the banks of Plum Creek. Wilder’s account, with its racist portrayal of Native Americans and sureness of the family’s right to land, is part of the narrative being overturned in the museum below.
If you aren’t ready to go inside yet, follow MVVA’s renovated paths, now lined with honey locusts. The despised ash trees had to be cut down as the emerald ash borer laid waste to the cultivar across the Midwest. Around the shallow ponds, now re-engineered so that they don’t breed green algae, some of Kiley’s lacy cedars still stand. The landscape palette is pleasantly simple: trees, grass, path. Green, sky, Arch.
Gullivar Shepard, a principal at MVVA, describes the “activity bridge” as a key to the firm’s design strategy here: not a physical bridge, but the view of people doing things in a park. In the new parkland to the north, MVVA was allowed to express itself, since the garage did not contribute to the landmark. There, the firm scooped out a bowl for performances, and have planted an Explorer’s Garden of plants Lewis and Clark encountered on their travels. Smaller stone paths, already partly overgrown with grasses, and hunks of granite give today’s children something to explore. National Parks don’t have playgrounds, so, on event evenings, the Gateway Arch Foundation brings out custom foam arch blocks for kids to play engineer on the lawn.
An elevated steel pathway connects the street grid to the park paths. St. Louis got rival dockless bikeshare concessions in April: green Lime and yellow Ofo bikes sped past me in the park at dusk. There were people all over it on a warm weekday evening, walking, biking, sitting, exploring the unbroken lines from the Old Courthouse down to the river, where graded paths now provide an alternative to Saarinen’s massive set of steps.
It’s clear that the city wants to keep that flow going, away from the river and into the neighborhoods. A competition to design the Chouteau Greenway, which would connect the Arch to Forest Park to the west, and create much-needed north-south greenways, was just won by a team led by Stoss Landscape Urbanism.
The part of the new project I liked the least was one I had been most excited for in advance: a room-sized floor map, in colorful terrazzo, of the United States and trails west. It makes perfect sense as another seamless extension of the landscape outside, brought inside, but the results are antiseptic.
The map sits on a mezzanine, so that you can gaze down on it from above, but because of security requirements the architects had to add a screen of thin metal tubes. The map below is huge, but not very detailed: No topography. No capitals. No borders. I was told that National Parks Service educators would bring out model landmarks and help kids place them in the right locations. When Fisher told me it had already been used as an event space, the penny dropped: The floor read more like a backdrop than an educational tool.
Once you get to the museum, it is crammed with visuals, offering visitors the opportunity to zigzag back and forth, from Colonial St. Louis to the Riverfront Era to Building the Gateway Arch. In the section labeled Manifest Destiny, the adjectives used to describe American Indian rights to the land are active and powerful, and new video interviews underline the message, “We’re Still Here.” Exhibit designers Haley Sharpe smartly foreground architecture, and life-size objects, beginning with a French-style vertical log cabin, far more elegant than the Lincoln-log type. Meanwhile, as part of the soundscape, bird calls and splashing water help you to forget you’re underground.
Visitors can use a touch-screen or button controls to play video of Colonial-era music, or explore a tabletop model of the cabin with their hands, depending on their interests and abilities—the exhibits are based on universal design principles, and tested at monthly meetings with a working group.
The final gallery deals with the Arch itself. A recorded voice aping Saarinen’s Finnish-American accent leads us through his original design presentation on a vast model. Architectural showmanship hasn’t changed so much in 70 years.
Small plaques sprinkled throughout the exhibit tell individuals’ stories, including those of women and children typically unreflected in the historical narrative. We meet Samantha Packwood, an 8-year-old girl who rode a mule west from Missouri on the Oregon Trail with her family (her sidesaddle is in the exhibition); Maria Rosa Villalpando, who was captured by Comanches in Taos, New Mexico, and eventually freed and brought east to St. Louis by a French fur trader; and Lilian Swann Saarinen, sculptor, Olympian, and Eero’s first wife, who contributed a sculpture group of western American animals drinking from a reflecting pool to the competition-winning proposal (it was later cut; they divorced; the plaque doesn’t get into all that).
Now, it is time to go up. Shepard describes the tram cars as resembling washing machines, and this is 100 percent accurate. The insides are drum-shaped, painted white as if that might relieve the claustrophobia, and fitted with petal-like seats. You get in (with people you are related to, in the best-case scenario) and are carried upward, not with the effortlessness of the transportation of the future, but with the clanks and jerks of our mechanical past. A tram trip begins with a time-wasting round of Arch trivia; the only question that is relevant is, “Which three forms of transportation inspired the tram?” That would be the elevator, the escalator, and the Ferris wheel—which becomes more and more apparent as your tramcar goes up, sideways and around, without tipping you over.
After the Arch, and the park, my favorite part of the whole experience was the 1967 short documentary, “Monument to the Dream,” playing in the museum’s theater. I’ve often railed against the hero worship and craft blindness of contemporary architecture documentaries, so imagine my surprise when “Monument to the Dream,” despite its grandiose title, despite its overlay of Jefferson’s “go forth” edict over Saarinen’s architecture, is all about how cigarette-smoking, not-wearing-safety-harnesses construction workers made the monument, rolling stainless steel, tightening rebar, pouring concrete, then setting the keystone on October 28, 1965. It is a thrilling and difficult journey, albeit one that omits the largely unsuccessful struggle by African-American laborers to get jobs building the Arch.
The film ties up the narrative with a sunset bow. Above the underground theater, where the summer sun is setting, the story isn’t over. The new-and-improved park is the beginning of another gateway narrative, equally difficult, one that won’t soar above St. Louis, but should build its bridges on the ground.
Alexandra Lange writes the Critical Eye column for Curbed, covering design in many forms: new parks and Instagram playgrounds, teen urbanists and architectural icons, postmodernism and the post-retail era. Her latest book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, was published by Bloomsbury USA in June 2018.