Had things gone differently in 1947, instead of the majestic stainless steel Gateway Arch that is recognized around the world, St. Louis could have a rectangular stone gate standing tall on the riverfront today.
Or, a large, abstract monument signifying … something.
Other suggestions proposed for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial included towering pylons and bridges.
As St. Louis celebrates its 250th anniversary -- and construction continues on the “park over the highway” that will connect the Arch to the city -- here’s a look back at the national design competition held 67 years ago that Eero Saarinen won with his simple but audacious arch.
Park historian Bob Moore says new exhibits planned for the renovated Arch museum will include Saarinen’s original proposals, along with some of the also-rans. Most of the original entries are stored in the Park Service’s archives at the Old Courthouse.
In the meantime, here are five things you might not know about the selection of the Arch design:
1. There Was Supposed To Be A Campfire Theater.
While Saarinen went BIG with his arch, many of the architects kept their eyes at ground level and focused on curious little elements like open-air campfire theaters and “villages” of French colonial houses.
What were they thinking?
Moore says they were, in fact, meeting the competition’s guidelines, which required that certain elements be incorporated into the design. The criteria called for an architectural memorial of some type; reproductions of the types of buildings found in Old St. Louis; a campfire theater where park rangers could give programs; restaurants, museums and possibly a helipad and port docking facility.
Some of the architects included big statuary of Thomas Jefferson, pioneers, American Indians and buffalo. Others suggested forms reminiscent of well-known monuments around the world.
“And then some, well, it’s hard to fathom what they were thinking,’’ Moore said. “One looks like a giant outdoor movie screen. Others don’t seem to embody the ideas of the memorial -- that Saarinen’s did -- of being a gateway.’’
A number of the designs featured riverfront restaurants, including one by Frank R. Leslie that envisioned “a restaurant and dancing'' over the riverfront.
Some of the entries would have bridged the Mississippi, linking east and west for motorists and pedestrians.
One of the bolder designs -- by Paul Valenti -- included a bridge with massive towers over the river and a subway beneath it. Valenti taught architecture at Washington University.
Moore said that several entries included bridge designs, but they didn’t stand a chance in the competition.
“Unfortunately for them, there had been a prohibition -- though I don’t know that it was stated as boldly as it should have been -- that they couldn’t bridge the river. Judges just kicked those out,’’ Moore said.
2. Well-Known Architects, Including Saarinen’s Father, Didn’t Get To Round 2.
It took three decades -- from the Great Depression to the Cold War -- to develop, fund, create and build the 90-acre national park. (See Addendum.)
Moore said that the design competition, which was announced in 1947, created lots of buzz among the nation’s architects, partly because few major projects had yet to get going in the postwar years -- and also because of the hefty amount of prize money.
“They raised the money privately -- none of it was government money,'’ Moore said. “First prize was $40,000. In 1948, that was a huge amount of money.’’
The competition, which was limited to U.S. citizens, drew 172 entries from big-name architectural firms, as well as unknowns just starting out. Some of the designs carry famous names: Charles and Ray Eames, Walter Gropius, who was a partner in The Architects Collaborative, and Gyo Obata, who would later co-found the global firm HOK.
The first round of judging took place in September 1947 in the courtrooms of the Old Courthouse, where the entries were set up on easels. The designs were identified by entry numbers only, not by the names of the architects.
Moore said that each entry consisted of two boards -- one showing a plan and elevation view and the other showing a prospective view or vignettes of what it would look like. (Some illustrations in this story highlight sections of the complete drawingboards.)
The jurors deliberated for four days, eventually agreeing on five designs. The semifinalists were each awarded $10,000 and invited to revise their designs for the second round of competition that would be decided in February 1948.
At the time of the competition, Eero Saarinen, 38, worked for his father Eliel Saarinen, a well-known architect who led the Cranbrook Institute of Architecture and Design near Detroit. Eliel also entered the competition, but his entry was eliminated in the first round. In an unfortunate bit of confusion, the congratulatory telegram announcing the first-round success was sent to Eliel by mistake.
The Saarinens apparently took the mix-up in stride, Moore said. “They were a tight clan. They were happy first for the father and then for the son.’’
A copy of the letter sent to Eero Saarinen afterward is filed with competition correspondence in the Park Service archives. It is signed by competition adviser George Howe and includes this postscript: “p.s. I see that my secretary addressed the telegram to your father instead of to you, having taken his name from your letterhead. Please take this as a correction.”
3. Others Also Put The Arch In Their Arch-itecture.
Saarinen wasn’t the only architect to suggest an arch.
“No one else actually designed a gigantic arch like Saarinen, but some used arches in their designs,” Moore said.
Even today, Saarinen’s entry -- No. 144 -- has a wow factor: It is big. It is simple. It is shiny. It feels new.
The entry also included surface structures: a large museum, restaurant and the specified open-air campfire theater, with seating for 500. Saarinen's original design was for a 590-foot-tall Arch set right on the levee. In round two, Saarinen tweaked the arch design to give it a catenary curve with a triangular cross section so that it had a sleeker appearance.
Saarinen had decided that what made monuments and memorials stand out was their simple shapes and their permanence, Moore said. But unlike the stone of the pyramids or the Washington Monument, Saarinen chose stainless steel because it was both permanent and modern in appearance.
“He wanted to use stainless steel on the outside and inside of the Arch. The Park Service balked at the inside because of the cost, but that was the original idea – that the Arch would be completely made of stainless steel,’’ Moore said.
In an essay published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 7, 1948, Saarinen described his thinking process, which involved using pipe cleaners to form arches of various sizes. At one point, he considered placing one leg on each bank of the river to symbolically link east and west. He wrote:
“No, there seemed to be enough bridges and placing a symbolic bridge between two useful bridges didn’t seem right. Maybe the arch should be parallel with the levee but placed right in the Mississippi. Then we came back to the thought that placing it on the west bank was not bad at all. It seemed like sort of a modern adaptation of a Roman triumphal arch …”
St. Louis architects Eugene Mackey and Joseph Murphy also envisioned an arch spanning the river, but theirs would have been a bridge.
4. Who were the deciders?
The members of the competition jury were all well-known and respected architects: Charles Nagel, director of the Brooklyn Museum who later headed the St. Louis Art Museum; Fiske Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; S. Herbert Hare, a Kansas City landscape architect; William Wurster, dean of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Richard Nuetra, who was known for his modernist work in southern California; Roland Wank, chief architect of the Tennessee Valley Authority; Louis LaBeaume, a St. Louis architect who drafted the competition rules. Howe, the competition adviser, was a prominent Philadelphia architect.
Though Saarinen’s design would eventually win with a unanimous vote, at least one judge -- Hare -- questioned its practicality. Wank wrote that it was "relevant, beautiful, perhaps inspired would be the right word." While Nagel described the arch as "an abstract form peculiarly happy in its symbolism."
The $20,000 second-place award went to William Eng, Gordon Phillips and George Foster who were graduate students at the University of Illinois. Eng would later work with Eero Saarinen’s architectural firm. The entry featured a large museum and seven tall pylons, each commemorating important historical moments.
Harris Armstrong of Kirkwood impressed the judges and made it to the semifinals with an innovative design that included a dramatic curve cut into the levee. But the judges said the design was difficult to understand at ground level and would have been expensive to build. Armstrong, who was the only solo entrant in the competition, made wholesale changes for round two.
“When he came back with his second-round entry it was so pedestrian, compared to the first round. But what could he do? Everything that was so unique and special about the first design was taken off the table by what the judges had said,’’ Moore said.
5. The Arch Would Have Needed Wading Boots.
After the competition, some critics failed to see the vision and described the proposed arch as a giant croquet wicket or stainless steel hitching post on the riverfront. Gilmore Clarke, chairman of the National Commission on Fine Arts, said Saarinen’s design resembled an arch that had been proposed for a 1942 world’s fair in Rome that was never held. The exhibition would have celebrated fascism.
The judges stood by their selection, pointing out that arches are timeless forms that have been used throughout the world.
Moore thinks the arch was the right choice.
“I look back at the designs, and I just can’t think they got it wrong,’’ he said. “I really can’t imagine any of those other designs being what we would today say is a monument to westward expansion on the St. Louis riverfront and certainly nothing as picturesque and audacious that it would become the icon of the city. Worldwide, whenever people see that Arch, they know exactly what the geographic location is.”
Funding and site issues held up construction for more than a decade; and Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley later tweaked the design to accommodate changes on the riverfront.
Moore said that architects had been told not to worry about the elevated tracks that cut across the riverfront because they would be torn down. But the trestle belonged to the Terminal Railroad Association, which still used it.
After much wrangling, a compromise was worked out that created cuts and tunnels in the park grounds that would allow for the trains. Instead of building the Arch on the levee, it was moved atop the newly created berm, and Saarinen designed a grand staircase to the river. The museum was moved beneath the Arch, and other surface elements – like the campfire theater – were dropped.
Moore believes the changes worked out well. If the Arch had been built on the levee as Saarinen originally intended, it would have been IN the Mississippi during the Great Flood of 1993.
And with the Arch approaching its 50th anniversary -- in 2015 – he thinks any surface buildings would be dated in appearance now.
“They might be wonderful things that architectural historians love -- midcentury modern looking buildings -- but they would be very dated,’’ he said. “And the Arch itself is timeless.’’
Addendum: The Clearing Of The Riverfront Began 75 Years Ago.
The history of the Arch and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is long and complicated, with controversy and legal challenges at just about every turn.
In a nutshell:
In 1933, civic booster Luther Ely Smith was riding a train home to St. Louis when he was struck by the shabby condition of the city’s riverfront. That view from a train window sparked his campaign to build a monument next to the Mississippi that would not only pay tribute to the city’s role in the nation’s westward expansion but also revitalize the historic riverfront.
With the support of Mayor Bernard Dickmann -- who saw potential in the memorial concept and in attracting federal New Deal funding -- the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association was organized in 1934. A controversial bond issue was approved in 1935 to raise $7.5 million that the city pledged toward construction. That December, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order designating the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial as the nation’s first National Historic Site.
The presidential proclamation also authorized the National Park Service to acquire nearly 40 city blocks on the riverfront, which was done through condemnation proceedings. Property owners argued that not all of the property was blighted and saw the action as a land grab. Legal challenges held up land acquisition until 1939.
The teardown began 75 years ago this fall when Dickmann pried three bricks from a building at 7 Market Street. The demolition included historic structures, like the Rock House, which was built by a fur trapper in 1818, and was the oldest building in the city. By 1942, the demolition was complete, but the project was delayed until the end of World War II, when the idea of holding a national design competition was revived.
The first triangular stainless steel segment of the 630-foot Arch was set in place in February 1963, with the “topping out” completed on Oct. 28, 1965 – a feat pulled off by creative-thinking engineers and fearless ironworkers.
Want To Know More?
For more on the history of the iconic Gateway Arch, here are a few suggestions:
* The Gateway Arch: A biography by Tracy Campbell
* A National Park Service administrative history of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is available online and was used as a source for this story.
* The Gateway Arch: An Architectural Dream, a collection of essays narrated by park historian Robert Moore who is interviewed in this story.