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Arch grounds and surroundings could get new look through design competition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2009 - Sixty-two years ago, St. Louis mounted an architectural competition of national consequence, and when all was said and done, the result was something quite astonishing -- the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the monument we all call simply the Arch.

Today, Mayor Francis Slay and the National Park Service are to announce the mounting of yet another national competition of enormous ambition, one intended to eliminate the real and perceived concrete and asphalt moats and boundaries that separate the Arch from the city and to weave together Arch, city and river into a unified urban organism.

In the long-ago design competition, a powerhouse group of civic leaders, led by Luther Ely Smith, put the competition process in motion. This group of worthies selected a jury of nationally and internationally respected architects. The jury was charged with judging the raft of entries that docked in St. Louis, and with deciding who would design this monument.

The winner: Eero Saarinen, and his powerful stainless steel inverted catenary. Since its completion 44 years ago -– after a now legendary episode in modern engineering and construction history -– the Arch established itself as an indelible symbol of St. Louis, and the connection between metropolis and monument is recognized around the world. At 630 feet tall and 630 feet from south leg to north, the Arch is gigantic; indeed it is the tallest memorial in the land, and is a strong competitor in the "most recognized monuments in the entire world" category.

But for all of that, for what architect Robert Venturi described as the Arch’s “magical scaleless quality,” it has remained -– in relationship to  St. Louis and to the Mississippi River -– a monument in isolation, splendid perhaps, but in a physical and psychological isolation that chokes off civic oxygen available to it from the surrounding cityscape and riverscape, and an isolation that prevents, as well, full physical identification and union with the metropolis meant to be its active and dynamic partner.

As Arch historian Robert J. Moore wrote in “The Gateway Arch – An Architectural Dream”: “It was the intent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association that the memorial area would become an integral part of the community's life and revive the beauty and overall impression of the adjacent downtown area.”

The barriers creating this memorial island include Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard (Wharf Street) on the east; a massive concrete bunker of a parking garage on the north; the black hole of the depressed lanes of Interstate 70 and traffic on Memorial Drive to the west; and on the south, a maintenance building and what appears to be, depending on the eye of the beholder, either abject desolation or huge potential for redevelopment.

Splendid Isolation

Lawyer Walter Metcalfe Jr. is one of the prime movers of this effort to overcome these problems. His Bryan Cave law offices in the Met Life building have a panoramic view of the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. From this lofty perch, one can see both the full majesty of the monument grounds and, in contrast, a condition of it that has confounded observers for decades. This condition often serves to create two distinct populations -– those who visit the Arch and never leave its grounds; and those who live and work and visit downtown, for one reason or another, and never set foot on the memorial grounds. 


Although no one would claim this to be a hard-and-fast situation, few would challenge the realities of such segregation and deleterious effects of them. Metcalfe, for one, has been vexed by them and has exerted his considerable strengths as a civic leader in efforts to ameliorate them. Details of the remedy, which begin with the 2010 competition, are contained in today's seven-page press release.

The plan is called “Framing a Modern Masterpiece: The City + The Arch + The River 2015.” Design teams that want to compete can sign beginning today, and a jury will be set up to select a winner, who will be announced in October 2010. The goal is to have the Arch grounds project completed, in keeping with the chosen plan, by Oct. 28, 2015 – the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Gateway Arch.

During the past couple of years, partly in response to challenges by civic leaders here about the Arch’s isolation, the Park Service initiated public meetings aimed at examining ways to make the grounds more accessible and attractive to a larger public and to create better pedestrian flow between downtown and the Arch.

New Museum?

Before and during the public meetings, the Danforth Foundation studied various plans to involve the Arch better with the city and to bring more visitors, both local visitors and tourists from out of town, to the Arch and the riverfront. Former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth said some of these plans proved to be impractical, but one of them could be realized. That was a proposal to build an aboveground museum on the grounds of the Arch, to be housed in a building designed by an architect chosen in a national competition. Danforth was prepared to direct about $50 million from the Danforth Foundation to support the project.

That plan met opposition from the National Park Service, however, which declared that a building of the scale necessary to accommodate a museum was incompatible with the existing design scheme. Foundation support was withdrawn at the end of 2008, and the Danforth Foundation is preparing to use its funds in other ways.

Nevertheless, Danforth is a supporter of the competition announced today. He said, “I am 100 percent behind anybody who wants to do something constructive in our town.” He said the barriers separating the Arch from the rest of the city clearly need to be removed, and he wants to lend his support to this effort. He continues to believe a “destination attraction,” such as a museum, is what is needed to increase traffic to the Arch. “But my personal view is we want to show support,” he said.

Public Input

Just as the National Park Service insisted on community participation to get the planning process this far, community participation also is built into the design competition, Metcalfe said. After teams complete the registration process in January, “We will have community networking events to engage the community, with back and forth and give and take” between the registered design team members and the public.

“The designers need to hear questions from the community,” Metcalfe continued, “and they need to get a feel for what the public thinks should happen on the Arch grounds and the area around it.”

In addition, a seven-member governance committee is in place to set competition policies, to approve the scope of work and to provide overall advice and direction. (Names of the governance committee members, a list of donors to the competition project and other details are available at www.cityarchrivercompetition.org.)

The late Charles Nagle, an architect and former director of the St. Louis Art Museum, was a member of the 1947 jury that selected Saarinen and his bold Arch for the memorial.  Nagel wrote, “A competition is a costly thing to hold, and I think this is one of the most generously financed competitions in recent years. It is fair to say, I think, that when you are considering a $30 million project, for the sum of $225,000 you get the very best ideas, and it was money well spent.”

The 2010 competition is estimated to cost $1.7 million, Metcalfe said. Unlike the 1947 competition, this amount that does not include prize money but includes honorariums for winners. The competition sponsor is CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, a not-for-profit organization.

Competition manager is Donald J. Stastny, founder and CEO of StastnyBrun Architects Inc., Portland, Ore. He has 40 years of experience in architecture and design, and particular experience in competition management. The Arch grounds competition is one of a number of prominent public competitions he’s managed. Others include the Flight 93 memorial in rural Pennsylvania, the selection of an architect for the Alaska State Capital, the United States Embassy in Berlin, the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, the Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Based on Stastny’s recommendations, an eight-person jury, which will select the winning design, will be named by the CityArchRiver 2015 in January. Competition participants, Metcalfe said, will be asked to create a new design for the Arch grounds and surrounding area based on 10 goals:

  • To create an iconic place for the Gateway Arch;
  • to catalyze increased vitality in the St. Louis region;
  • to honor the character-defining elements of the landmark;
  • to weave connections and transitions from the city and the Arch grounds to the Mississippi River;
  • to embrace the river and the east bank in Illinois as integral parts of the national park;
  • to mitigate the impact of transportation systems;
  • to reinvigorate the mission of telling the story of St. Louis as the gateway to national expansion;
  • to create attractors to promote extended visits to the Arch, St. Louis and the river;
  • to develop a sustainable future for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial;
  • to enhance a the visitor experience and to create a welcoming and accessible environment.

These goals were established by CityArchRiver 2015. In the final plan for the Arch grounds on which the National Park Service signed off on Nov. 23, projects listed for consideration ranged from expanding and improving the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch and better connections between the Arch grounds and downtown to water taxi service between the Arch grounds and the Illinois bank of the river and more programs and activities on the Arch grounds.

No Boundaries

The estimated cost of improvements listed in the final plan was $305.4 million. But Metcalfe stressed that that figure was very much an estimate and would no doubt change based on results of the design competition. The land embraced by the competition includes the Arch grounds, the city-owned riverfront and about 30 acres on the Illinois side of the river, including the Malcolm Martin memorial with its geyser and a platform.

Metcalfe said no boundaries, as such, would be set for the north and south ends of the St. Louis riverfront. “Rather,” he said, “we will ask designers to resolve how to connect things together, including Laclede’s Landing, Chouteau’s Landing, the East side of the river, the Gateway Mall and the new Citygarden on the Gateway Mall about six blocks west of the Arch grounds.”

Besides Metcalfe, some of the other stalwarts in organizing the effort to mount the competition are Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley and Lynn McClure, Midwest director of the National Park Conservation Association, based in Chicago.

The effort, he said, was strongly energized by the visit in July of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“Tom, Lynn and I began talking about how to pull things together after Secretary Salazar kick-started this by saying that he would move heaven and earth to accomplish this by Oct. 28, 2015.” After that, Metcalfe said, “We said, ‘let’s go, let’s get organized.’”

Metcalfe believes the 2015 goal for completion is realistic.

“This can be done. It is all doable, and this is the right way to do it,” he said. He emphasized that the project’s importance is not to St. Louis alone but to the entire region. “The Arch is our identity, one of the greatest identities we have globally,” he said. “It is the absolute center of our region, a symbol of energy and optimism.”

Bradley said he expects the project to be financed with “a mixed bag” of resources. Now that the Park Service has signed off on the final plan, he said, “That is a way for us to get on the radar screen for appropriations” from Congress. He said the project might also qualify to receive federal or state transportation money because of planned traffic-related improvements.

Another source, he said, might be private money, along the lines of all the private money that helped to pay for renovating the Statue of Liberty.

“We are trying to learn from others, and looking at other design competitions so we can continue to hit the ground running on this,” Bradley said.

Charlene Prost is a freelance writer who has long covered development issues.

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