Memorial Milestones: Important moments in Arch history
The Arch sits on hallowed ground.
IT WAS THE site of our original French village, built on a bluff. “By the 1820s and ’30s, the people living in St. Louis decided they wanted better river access, so they started to quarry away the bluff,” says Bob Moore, site historian for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. “Eventually, they made the whole area so it was almost like an inclined plain.” The Great Fire of 1849 obliterated many of the original stoneand- rubble buildings, but they were quickly replaced with sturdier, taller structures. “I think that shows how important the area was,” says Moore. “It couldn’t be allowed to just sit fallow.” Many of the buildings housed businesses: bookbinders and fur traders, a pickle factory and a candy company.
St. Louis’ first real arts district, Commercial Alley, sprang up there, along with Little Bohemia and the Blue Lantern Inn, a precursor to Gaslight Square, which was frequented by the likes of Tennessee Williams. By 1935, the area included 290 active businesses and had just a 2 percent vacancy rate.
There may be ghosts on that ground.
DAVID RIORDAN OF Riordan Tours leads haunted walks in downtown St. Louis, including the Arch grounds and the cobbled stones of Laclede’s Landing.
It’s a perfect hunting ground for ghosts because it’s the oldest neighborhood in St. Louis. One of his tales recounts the quirky happenings inside a blacksmith shop that was located where the Arch now stands:
“The blacksmith shop was right about here. That’s where you went to buy contraband and launder money. That’s where the black market was. You would walk in and say, ‘I need a handful of nails, and I’d also like to see the menu.’ The menu would contain a ledger all of the contraband that you could buy, tax free. Maybe you pay for a handful of nails; a few days later, a package arrives on your doorstep with what you ordered. This, ladies and gents, was the first incarnation of eBay.
“This particular blacksmith shop was the home of a particularly amusing spirit. One night, when the farrier smithy came home, his wife told him the anvil had been ringing all day. When she went outside, the noise stopped, and she saw nothing. The man was curious.
“As time passed, the farrier began to notice strange things: The equipment he’d been using for years suddenly seemed bewitched. Tools and finished work were constantly falling from spots where they had been securely stored. Tools were regularly moved from their normal spots.
“One day, the man had an especially large amount of work to get out, and the ghost was acting up even more than usual. The man shouted, ‘Why don’t you just leave me alone?’ Immediately, a heavy yoke fell from its place in the rafters and barely missed hitting him in the head. The farrier shouted more loudly, challenging the spirit to give him a little help from time to time.
“Amazingly, from that point on, there were very few problems. In fact, there were times when the tool he needed would magically appear where he needed it. “So maybe you can reason with spirits.”
The Old Rock House wasn't always a concert venue.
IT WAS ONE of the few original buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1849. “It started out as a fur trade warehouse, and it was used by the early military,” Moore says. “It later was a sail loft and was used to make covered-wagon covers and tents.
Later, it was a tavern.” When it had to be moved to make way for the Arch, a plan to preserve it fell apart—and so did the building. Today, the Old Courthouse houses a tiny remnant of the building. Soon, though, the Old Rock House will be reborn in the new museum. “We’re going take all of the existing elements and rebuild it,” says Moore. “You’ll be able to walk through the door.”
Plans to beautify the riverfront began long before a design competition was announced.
“BACK IN 1899, a prominent citizen looked at the sprawling waterfront here and said, ‘St. Louis faces vast territory lying east of us with a sadly begrimed countenance,’” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in 1946. “It was a polite way of saying St. Louis had a ‘dirty face,’ so before long plans to beautify the riverfront began appearing.”
Among the proposals over the next several decades: a science center, a sea wall, an aquarium, a parking facility, a landing strip…even a football stadium. (Yes, history has a way of repeating itself.)
Funds to raze the Arch grounds were approved under questionable circumstances.
IN THE 1930S, city leaders proposed clearing the 37 downtown blocks to make way for a major project, one that Mayor Bernard Dickmann claimed could eventually generate 5,000 jobs—though specifics of that grand project remained elusive at the time. Skeptics predicted that the resulting “mud hole” would just become a “glorified parking lot.” Nonetheless, during the election of September 1935, a $7.5 million bond was passed to fund the demolition. According to Tracy Campbell's book The Gateway Arch: A Biography, it was later revealed that thousands of voters had been registered at addresses holding empty buildings or hotels.
A memorial to Jefferson was met with skepticism.
SOME SAID CITY LEADERS merely wanted a piece of Works Progress Administration money—one reason Jefferson’s name was attached to the project. After all, there was already Forest Park’s Jefferson Memorial Building, where the Missouri History Museum is now housed, offering information about the third president and the Louisiana Purchase.
Public opinion was so divided, some firms threatened to leave town if forced to move from the site, and “an equally aggressive group” pushed ahead, hoping that Congress would help fund the rest of the project once work started. Even after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approved $9 million to purchase the land downtown and tear down the buildings, a skeptic noted, “Unless Uncle Sam coughs up a lot more money, the Jefferson memorial would be nothing more than a river front parking lot.”
For decades, the skeptics were right.
“FORTY CITY BLOCKS stand weed-grown and idle,” the Post-Dispatch noted in February 1945. “It has become obvious to all persons interested that a memorial must be developed in some way, or St. Louis will become a laughingstock.” The following year, nothing had changed. “Very quietly the city has opened a municipally operated parking lot on the barren 40-block open spaces of the riverfront,” the St. Louis Star-Times wrote. “But there is no other activity on this broad expanse.”
“JennyMae” was not the name of a hit song in the ’30s.
IT WAS THE nickname of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association, or JNEMA for short, which led the architectural competition to build a memorial.
It took more than one man to erect the Arch.
Everyone knows about Eero Saarinen. But don’t forget about the following contributors.
In place of the Arch, we could’ve had the Pylons.
AMONG THE DESIGN competition’s five finalists, announced in September 1947, were some dramatically different visions: one with a helipad, another with elaborate artwork, and a third with a sloped levee shaped like the Nike swoosh. (Other bold visions that called for a bridge were discarded earlier because designs weren’t supposed to span the river.) The eventual second-place winners, Gordon Phillips and William Eng, proposed seven pylons, each signifying a key historical moment.
Saarinen’s vision reached across the Mississippi.
THE ORIGINAL CALL for entries asked for recreational facilities on both sides of the river, as well as parking.
Saarinen took both to heart. He proposed a lush park in Illinois that appeared even larger than the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s present-day 91 acres in Missouri. And he suggested devoting large swaths of downtown, on both sides of the Gateway Mall, to parking that would be easily accessible from the “super-express ways” and “traffic dispersal ways.”
And his vision reached beyond steel.
IN HIS ORIGINAL sketch, Saarinen had imagined public art at the foot of the Arch—including his then-wife’s animal sculptures—as well as an arcade and a restaurant overlooking the river.
“Sculpture and mural courts should afford many opportunities for design integration in the whole space,” he wrote. “They also make an intimate relation between people and art as they stroll or sit beneath the protecting roof of the arcade.” Reflective pools and tall trees would cover the grounds. In fact, he envisioned it “so densely covered with trees that it will be a forest-like park, a green retreat from the tension of the downtown city.”
Not everyone embraced Saarinen’s vision.
IN FEBRUARY 1948, the jury for the architectural competition unanimously voted for Saarinen’s “genius” design. But not all were happy: One businessman called it “a grotesque monstrosity”; another described it as a “stupendous hairpin…a stainless-steel hitching post whose beauty is unprintable.” New York landscape architect Gilmore Clark, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, called it something else: Fascist, oddly similar to the parabolic arch designed by Adalberto Libera in 1942 for the Esposizione Universale di Roma, a celebration of 20 years of Fascism in Italy. Even Saarinen, who protested that he’d never seen Liberi’s arch, was a bit taken aback by the similarity at first. The two arches were the same height, and both were clad in shiny metal.
On closer inspection, however, it became clear that they were quite different: Saarinen’s arch was catenary, with three, rather than four, sides—a design improvement suggested by the sculptor Carl Milles. “The fact that Fascist Italy came so close to using a somewhat similar shape to the one we proposed for St. Louis does not really bother me,” Saarinen said. “I hope it doesn’t bother anybody else.” It did bother Liberi, who threatened to sue. After Saarinen pointed out that the arch was so universal a symbol as to be virtually impossible to “steal,” the controversy began to simmer down. (In fact, Saarinen had found creative inspiration in Europe, but in a much more obscure structure: Eugene Freyssinet’s huge curved dirigible hangars.)
Saarinen’s wives played their part in the design.
IN 1939, SAARINEN married Lilian “Lily” Swann (pictured), the great-great-granddaughter of one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s founders.
A sculptor, she was part of the design team when he came up with the Arch—and she arranged the family’s Champagne party when they thought Saarinen’s father, architect Eliel Saarinen, had won. The detail showed up in a 1953 profile by New York Times arts writer Aline Louchheim, who described Lily as a vivid brunette and gave no hint that the couple’s marriage was foundering—or that her interview with Saarinen had quickly turned personal, ending in rushed intimacy in a dark drawing room. Within months, he was divorced; in February 1954, Louchheim sent a telegram to a newspaper editor: “Since I am marrying Eero Saarinen on Monday, think it tactless for me to make further public appraisals on his architecture.” She preserved their late-night conversations about his work in a book and told friends the only real friction in the marriage was “Eero’s inertia about the house… It usually needs a ‘charette’ situation—such as a party the next night—to get him involved.” After his early death of a brain tumor, she reeled for a while. But she became a TV commentator and, in 1971, took over CBS’ Paris bureau, a coup she barely had time to enjoy. She died a year later—of a brain tumor.
Some of Saarinen's other designs were inspired by wartime espionage.
IN 1940, EERO Saarinen was recruited to head an elite design team in the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA). “For almost four years, he was involved with covert activity the historians ignored,” says Georgetown University architect Mina Marefat. When the data were finally declassified, she found a long letter his bosses wrote in 1944, saying he couldn’t be ordered to the front to fight because his work with the OSS was too vital. His mother, a sculptor, had taught him model-making when he was a kid. Now he was making models of entire cities that would be bombed. He illustrated bomb-disassembly manuals.
He equipped the War Room, streamlining it for visual communication so decision-makers could absorb information fast. Many of his later designs would grow out of the military technology he explored—swiveling chairs for War Room meetings, fiberglass for the famous Womb Chair, a plastic bonded finish for the sleek Tulip Chair... From heroic bloodshed came a clean new beauty.
Saarinen was part of a larger modern movement.
THROUGH SAARINEN’S GATEWAY Arch is a singular piece of public art, it reflects the spirit of its times: Modernism.
And it wasn’t just about architecture; it was about the design of all objects, which is why architects like Saarinen often branched out into industrial and furniture design. This month, the Saint Louis Art Museum opens St. Louis Modern, which looks at Midcentury Modernism’s rise here between 1935 and 1965. It offers a more human-scale look at Saarinen’s work, as well as examples of work from his contemporaries. Here’s just a small taste of what will be in the show, which runs from November 8 to January 31.
Saarinen was juggling 10 unfinished projects, the Arch among them, when he died.
ON AUGUST 20, 1961, Eero Saarinen turned 51. A few days later, he canceled a reception in his honor and went to the University of Michigan’s University Hospital. On September 1, he underwent a two-hour operation to remove a brain tumor. “His condition is serious,” The New York Times reported.
A few hours later, the paper was setting type for his obituary. The malignancy had spread throughout his brain. A memorial was held September 9 in the cylindrical chapel Saarinen designed for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Let us remember the life of a great man,” the eulogy ended, “who wrought more than most.” Ground was broken on the St. Louis riverfront two years later; Saarinen’s partners continued his work, but no changes were made in his plans for the Arch. Saarinen’s widow, Aline, came for the topping-out ceremony and said, “The Arch was the climax of my husband’s career, the thing that meant the most to him.”
The Arch was fabricated in Warren, Pennsylvania.
ALL OF THE aboveground parts were shipped here in gondola cars. (Today, the Committee of Retired Boilermakers is raising money to build a “baby Arch” in Warren to memorialize their role.)
Before activist Percy Green climbed the north leg of the Arch, he calculated every detail.
IN THE EARLY ’60s, not one African-American had been hired to work on the Arch. So on July 14, 1964, Green walked onto the construction site, careful to let another activist, a white college student named Richard Daly, precede him.
If Green had led, it might have roused suspicion; this way, it looked like the white guy was in charge. They waited until the construction workers opened their lunch pails, then used their ladder to climb 125 feet. As a distraction, activists picketed the Old Courthouse, squinting over at the Arch every few seconds. The minute Green waved, they brought the press over. Daly sat on a rung; Green stood, shifting from one foot to the other, for the next five hours. “I’ll stay up here until I starve to death!” he shouted to the police officers below—though he’d already calculated when he’d have to climb down in order to make bond and get to his job at McDonnell Douglas on time for the midnight shift.
A time capsule was welded into the top.
ON OCT. 27, 1965, officials placed the lid on a long metal box. Inside, written on seven bundles wrapped in foil and closed with ribbon and the city’s seal, were the signatures of 762,000 St. Louisans, most of them schoolchildren. The next day, those kids watched as the Arch keystone was hoisted into place. “Children, when they grow up and have their own families, will be able to point to the Arch and say their names are in it,” said the chair of the toppingout committee.
Many thought the Arch would collapse at the topping-out ceremony.
WIND TUNNEL TESTS predicted disaster. Ironworkers staged a work stoppage, demanding lastminute safety tests. Overnight calculations showed the Arch within three-eighths of an inch of the ideal.
On the morning of October 28, 1965, the air was a crisp 40 degrees, but the south leg had already begun to expand with the sun’s warmth. (The mayor had insisted on a daylight ceremony so everyone could watch.) Firefighters hosed water to cool the steel. Applying almost 500 pounds of pressure, workers jacked the legs farther apart, and the final section was hoisted slowly upward. Vito Comporato was up top on the phone, acting as crane operator Bill Quigley’s eyes. “It’s gonna have to get a little closer before I can tell for sure,” the hoist engineer called. A steamboat let out a long whistle. All of St. Louis held its breath. The last section slid into place—and held.
The stats are staggering.
It's taller than a wonder of the ancient world.
Outsiders think it looks like…
  1. A mobius strip.
  2. A giant slingshot.
  3. The great mustache of the west.
  4. Half of the McDonald's golden arches.
  5. The female counterpart to the Washington monument.
Many visitors to the top use the same adjectives to describe it now as people did when it was completed.
“‘Breathtaking’ was one that got a good workout,’” the Globe-Democrat noted of those initial tram riders’ reactions. “So did ‘remarkable,’ and ‘marvelous,’ ‘Oh’ and ‘fantastic’ didn’t fare too badly, either.” Perhaps the best reaction came from a “portly Kentuckian” who in 1968 told a Post-Dispatch reporter: “I tell you, that there’s an exciting ride. Like scared me to death.”
A 39-year-old drummer from Chicago was the first to the top.
AL CARTER “TOOK time out from his job as a drummer with a combo in that city’s plush Ambassador East Hotel Pump Room to come here for the occasion,” the Globe-Democrat noted in 1967. “Mr. Carter left work at 3 a.m. on Sunday, came to St. Louis by bus and ‘camped’ near the Arch entrance for 25 hours to be sure of being first in line.” His reaction after seeing the view from the top? “It was well worth it.”
It's best to go up at night.
SANTIAGO CRUZ, a former historian for the memorial, rode the elevator day and night after it first opened in 1967. “He noted that fellow riders were most impressed by the views of the city after dark,” the Post-Dispatch wrote. “‘In the evening, with all the lights turned on, the city is beautiful. It is truly a remarkable view.’”
Not everyone made it to the top.
JUST BEFORE THE Arch dedication ceremony, in 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from his limo and, on seeing the Arch, exclaimed, “Fantastic. Incredible. Wow. Look at that.” If only he’d seen the view from the top. “The top? Can you get to the top?” he asked after the ceremony. “Do they have an elevator?”
People do sometimes get stuck inside those claustrophobic tram cars.
IN JULY 1970, a woman from Chicago, her 6-year-old son, and two friends visited the top of the Arch.
When they came back down, the door to their tram capsule never opened, and the train moved up to an overnight parking zone about 50 feet in the air. After about an hour, one friend pried open the door, and the party walked nervously across a narrow beam to a set of stairs. “I didn’t know how high we were,” the woman later said, “but I just knew that if we fell we wouldn’t be anything but a spot when we hit.” In July 2007, one of the cables pulling the south tram failed and contacted an electrified rail, which blew a fuse, disabling the north tram as well. For hours, roughly 100 visitors were trapped at the top and 40 people were stuck in each tram. As if the close quarters weren’t bad enough, the power outage also disabled the air conditioning inside the tiny cars. “There was never any danger,” said Frank Mares, the Arch’s deputy superintendent, “just a lot of inconvenience.”
It takes a lot to keep those trams running.
Terry DiBlasi, age 64, is an Arch transportation system mechanic. He maintains the tram that takes you to the top.
    When you have a breakdown and have the public on the tram. You have to be very good at controls and understand how the system works.

    There’s no other piece of equipment or structure like it in the United States. There’s always something new to do. We harness up; we inspect; we replace parts. Work never stops in the legs.

    Inside the leg, you have temperature swings. It only happens at certain times of the year, from fall to winter and winter to spring. The temperature drops at a sudden rate, and you get condensation on the inside. Since you’re on a catenary curve, you get little droplets. It’s like you’re in a mild rainstorm.

    I’m a St. Louis native. I’m from the Hyde Park neighborhood, near Crown Candy. When I was a young guy in grade school, they were building the Arch, and we were building it in the classroom, too. They came to our school to get our signatures and put them in the time capsule… I work on a unique piece of equipment I never dreamt I would. I feel pretty neat to be a St. Louis native who’s gotten to work here and do this. I have a lot pride in my work, of who I am.
Stunts involving the Arch are sometimes successful but often disastrous.
In 1973, founder of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race and U.S. Ballooning Hall of Famer Nikki Caplan became the first and only pilot to legally fly a hot air balloon, with a park official along for the ride, through the Gateway Arch. Caplan’s balloon struck one leg of the arch but slid past unharmed.
Accomplished skydiver Kenneth Swyers of Overland had made more than 1,000 successful jumps before November 1980. That’s when he parachuted from a plane onto the top of the Arch. He then attempted to base-jump down, using his reserve parachute, but it failed to open. He lost his footing and slid down the north leg to his death. Swyers’ wife, Millie, also a parachutist, was filming her husband’s stunt and witnessed the fatal plunge.
Daredevil John C. Vincent of Louisiana, 25, scaled the Arch with suction cups attached to his arms and legs, then parachuted down from the top in 1992. “It’s clearly a great stunt,” U.S. Attorney Stephen Higgins said at the time. “It’s just something the park service doesn’t take lightly.” Once he was charged with two misdemeanors, Vincent’s courage ran out. To save his own skin, he agreed to testify against the man he had recruited to film the feat.
There’s just something about clinging to the side of the Arch…
STEPHEN KELLEY, AGE 61, led the research team that recently rappelled to collect samples from stains appearing on the legs.
  • “When you go to the top and climb out that hole, you immediately have all this air blowing around you... But as soon as you get away from that hole, it’s very still and can be fairly serene.”
  • “I’ve been there at 6 in the morning, when the sun is coming up, and I’ve been there at 7 at night. It always looks different.”
  • “I don’t think rappelling off the building gave me any new respect for it. I always had that.”
Helicopters avoid flying over it.
“WE WON’T OVERFLY the area of the Arch grounds,” says 50-year-old Brian Landgraf, who’s been a pilot with Gateway Helicopter Tours for nine years. “We pretty much stay above the river or along the shoreline. It’s just our agreement with the National Park Service.”
But you can fly over it virtually.
FOREVER FROZEN IN the year 2009, the virtual Gateway Arch stands on its own island in the game Second Life, a 3-D online world that lets users explore, interact, and otherwise live a digital form of real life.
The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission spent $6,000 building the online Arch to attract young gamers from all over the world to STL IRL. A click of the mouse transports virtual visitors to the Arch’s top. Tourism officials had big dreams for the online Arch’s environs, including a digital downtown and Forest Park, but as the subscription-only game lost popularity, the CVC built a new virtual flyover tour showcasing “monumental changes” to the Arch grounds and museum.
Visitors from other countries love the Arch—possibly even more than some St. Louisans do.
I’VE MET PEOPLE from France, Sweden, South Africa, India, China, Colombia, Venezuela,” says 22-year-old Emily Reller, an Arch tour guide.
“I’ve lived in the St. Louis area for my whole life, and to me the Arch was just another building. Before seeing how amazed people are by a 630-foot-tall arch, I just never realized how fantastic it was.”
You can see all kinds of things from up there...
and soon you'll be able to see...
(Photo by Kevin A. Roberts)
Some St. Louisans have yet to visit the top—until recently
STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Kevin A. Roberts has lived here all his life. I first moved to Missouri nine years ago, and though my Pennsylvanian parents have gone up in the Arch twice, neither Kevin nor I ever had. That all changed on an overcast morning when Roberts and I bought our $10 tram tickets. We walked down a ramp, trying to ignore the whiff of mildew. The tram loading zone, with its boxy red TVs and numbered metal doors, reminded me of Space Mountain at Disney World.
After a corny video, we squeezed into tram car No. 7 with a woman and her parents. On the slow climb, I observed the guts of the Arch, marveled at the engineering genius of the tram, and tried not to think about the possibility of getting stuck in one. It was like a ride at the county fair. At the top, the windows were small, and looking out required leaning over a carpeted hump. The view was impressive, no doubt, but not quite the breathtaking panorama I expected. People posed for photos and started a lot of sentences with “Hey, look, you can see…” On the trip back down, we sat with a guy who enjoyed making observations like “I wonder how many people have puked in here.” Later that afternoon, to complete the quintessential St. Louis day, I watched the Cards beat the Cubs while drinking a Budweiser. —William Powell
Marriage proposals at the Arch come in two flavors.
IN THE FIRST, the couple rides to the top, where a knee is dropped and a question popped.
The second requires that same ride up, plus a look out the viewing deck windows, where friends below hold a large sign inscribed with the pressing question. Arch staffers say proposals happen so often (50–75 per year, by one tour guide’s estimate) that they all begin to blend together. All except for one, on a winter day in the ’90s, says witness and veteran park ranger Nancy Hoppe, 64. She says it involved all the normal trappings of proposal style No. 2, except for one detail: Instead of wangling a few friends to hold a sign, this chap summoned some creativity, showed up earlier in the day, and stamped into the fresh snowfall the name of his bride-to-be, followed by the words “WILL YOU MARRY ME?”
You can get married at the top of the Arch…
…BUT WE WOULDN’T recommend it.
Weddings during general operating hours will, of course, be open to the public, making it somewhat difficult to control your guest list. Space is severely limited, with each tram taking a maximum of 40 people to the top. And you need a letter of approval. Because you’re technically in a national park, there are lots of rules. For instance: “The throwing of rice, birdseed, flower petals, bubbles, etc., is strictly prohibited.”
The photo ops are endless.
THE BIGGEST THING is how the Arch changes with the light, depending on the time of day,” says 55-year-old Al Bilger, a film projectionist supervisor and photographer who’s worked at the Arch since 1980. “Being able to record that over the seasons, over the years, has been one of the things I appreciate most.”
No, seriously. Endless.
Click images to view more Arch beauty shots.
Threats to the Arch grounds haven’t been what you might expect.
WHEN PEOPLE WORRY about terrorist threats to the Arch grounds, they forget about the gentler sort: the menace posed to the ash trees by a little green beetle; the homegrown fungus, called canker stain, that could infect the replacement London plane trees. Mix the trees up, arborists urge. An allée is very French, but when all the trees are the same, they can be wiped out with a single weapon.
The view’s even better with food.
CIELO RESTAURANT & BAR: Snag a two-person swivel chair on the rooftop during cocktail hour.
ANGELO’S TAVERNA: Excellent T-ravs are served with the Arch looming outside.
GIO’S RISTORANTE & BAR: A spectacular patio faces Kiener Plaza and the Arch.
KEMOLL’S: Indulge in a romantic dinner 40 stories up.
RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE: This popular steakhouse is right beside the Arch.
THREE SIXTY: This sleek spot is the place to see downtown’s most famous sights.
Don’t forget the view from the Casino Queen.
AFTER ALL, East St. Louis needed the casino’s tax money so badly, it gave up dedicated park land and forfeited federal money.
It took four decades to build a park in the Metro East—albeit nothing like what Saarinen first imagined.
MALCOLM MARTIN MADE it through Yale, co-founded a law firm, fought in World War II, helped plan the D-Day invasion, and co-founded KETC Channel 9.
But it took him more than 30 years to get a fountain across from the Arch. Saarinen had mentioned a water feature in his original plans. So Martin bought land directly across from the Arch, formed a nonprofit, raised $4 million, and fought for years to get Congressional approval. Finally, on May 27, 1995, “the father of the fountain” donned a raincoat and pushed four buttons, and the new geyser baptized itself, shooting water almost as high as the 630-foot Arch. Next, Martin thought, there’d be a national park and a museum of cultural history. Instead, 55 acres was sold to the Casino Queen. Martin died in 2004, leaving money from his estate to continue (please!) his mission. The next year, for the Arch’s 40th anniversary, the geyser was illuminated. In 2009, the Malcom W. Martin Memorial Park opened, complete with a 42-foot-high Mississippi River Overlook offering stunning views of the St. Louis riverfront. A life-size bronze of Malcolm Martin sits on top of the overlook, gazing at Martin’s old Mansion House apartment in downtown St. Louis.
We could’ve walked on treetops.
BEFORE MICHAEL VAN Valkenburgh Associates’ team was declared the winner of CityArchRiver’s international design competition, in 2010, the five finalists proposed some unexpected ideas.
The MVVA team suggested a parking facility with an ice skating rink on the roof in the winter and a beer garden in the summer; across the river, visitors would be able to explore treetop walkways. Other finalists’ ideas were equally imaginative: a floating amphitheater, a gondola crossing the river, a swimming bar, a bistate river ferry… One not-so-ambitious idea: an RV park.
The Arch grounds makeover transcends the original project.
Approximate cost, in millions, for construction of the Arch (when adjusted for inflation, from an original cost of $13 million in the mid-’60s)
Approximate cost, in millions, for the CityArchRiver 2015 project

Number of days for construction, from 1963 to 1965
Number of days from the CityArchRiver 2015 project’s groundbreaking to the 50th anniversary this October. (Construction’s slated to continue through spring 2017.)
The new museum is (finally) what Saarinen wanted.
SAARINEN’S PLANS CALLED for two museums, one for architecture and one for history. And not just “objects placed in glass cabinets,” either: He wanted museums that used “animated exhibitions, sound tracks, and other modern devices” to demonstrate St. Louis’ role in Jeffersonian exploration.
But by the time the Museum of Westward Expansion was finally built, in 1976, it wasn’t quite so jazzy. It only went back to 1800, and the focus was Anglo-Saxon, with lots of generic pioneer exhibits—muskets and bibles, a life-sized buffalo replica, and a teepee in the “Indian” section. (A Lakota visitor once remarked, “The way you have Indians stuck in there makes it look like it’s a profession!”) In the new museum, artifacts and memoirs of the Osage and other tribes will be threaded through the exhibits, and St. Louis’ early multiculturalism will be obvious, says Arch historian Bob Moore. And Saarinen’s own architecture—“that 630-foot elephant in the room,” as Moore calls it—will have its very own section.
You’ll soon be able to go up in the Arch—without actually going up in the Arch.
WE ARE ESSENTIALLY taking the keystone and dropping it down into the lobby, so people who can’t go up in the trams can experience what it’s like,” says Bill Haley of Haley Sharpe Design, which is designing the new museum.
From the moment visitors enter the Museum of Westward Expansion, they will be immersed in the exhibits. They’ll walk past screens playing clips of covered wagons traversing the West and trains barreling down tracks. There will also be a host of interactive exhibits: touchscreens, maps, soundscapes… “We want to make it as innovative as possible without making it gimmicky,” says Haley. “It needs to capture the strength and emotion of the people who built America.” The museum will be organized thematically. “It is a journey through time,” says Haley, “but it’s almost like six distinct chapters.” Here’s just a glimpse of those chapters.
  1. Colonial St. Louis Exhibits: will include a replica of a French Creole house.
  2. Jefferson’s Vision: “That whole idea of working across the landscape, from sea to sea,” which is exactly what Lewis and Clark did.
  3. Manifest Destiny Exhibits: will teach about “the conflict and different views,” says Haley. “We’re not shirking away from the history or trying to sanitize anything.”
  4. The Riverfront Era: An interactive display will show where people and goods traveled from St. Louis, and visitors can hear the noises and bustle of life on the river’s banks.
  5. New Frontiers The exhibits, in some ways, will debunk Hollywood’s portrayal of the West.
  6. Building the Arch: Screens will show powerful images of the memorial’s construction.
You won't find that buffalo.
THERE WILL BE a buffalo, but not the old stoic one that many St. Louisans remember from field trips. “He’s done his tour of duty,” says Haley, adding that other ancient taxidermy and animatronic figures are being replaced with newer exhibits. In some ways, that buffalo—and the one that will replace it—represents more than tattered taxidermy. It’s a symbol of how the land has changed, how the museum is changing, of loss and resilience. To some Americans, a buffalo embodies the need for change, adaptability, and endurance—something the Arch has also come to embody.