The Gateway Arch
St. Louis’ memorial to Thomas Jefferson and westward expansion is an architectural masterpiece and a great place to visit.
Photography: Courtesy St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission
At 630 feet, it’s the tallest manmade monument in the United States. But St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, or Gateway to the West, commands as much attention for its design and meaning as it does for its record height.
The arch is what’s known as a “weighted catenary,” having the shape a weighted chain would have if it were hanging from both ends. (The ends of the Gateway Arch? Exactly 630 feet apart from the outer sides — same as the height.)
The graceful, gleaming Gateway is the work of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Born in Finland in 1910, Saarinen immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1923. The year before, a precocious Eero had taken first place at the age of 12 in a matchstick design contest.
He came by his talent for architecture through both nature and nurture. His father was Eliel Saarinen, a noted architect who administered the prestigious Cranbrook Institute of Architecture and Design from 1930 to 1934. Eero followed in his father’s footsteps: After studies at the Yale School of Architecture and a fellowship in Europe, he taught design at Cranbrook and then joined his father’s architectural firm as a partner.
Then came an opportunity to establish himself with a design that was fully his own. In 1947, Saarinen entered the architectural competition for Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. His vision was to do more than create a monument to Thomas Jefferson and the country. He wanted to honor the modern age, and an arch fit the bill. "The major concern,” Saarinen explained, “... was to create a monument which would have lasting significance and would be a landmark of our time ... Neither an obelisk nor a rectangular box nor a dome seemed right on this site or for this purpose. But here, at the edge of the Mississippi River, a great arch did seem right.”
Visiting the Arch
You can ride to the top of the Gateway Arch in an enclosed tram (trams leave every 10 minutes). The narrated journey up takes four minutes. At the top, there’s the observation area and its unparalleled views of St. Louis. At the bottom, you can learn about the construction of the Gateway Arch by watching the original 1967 documentary Monument to the Dream; the award-winning film takes you from conception through construction. You can also watch Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West, a documentary narrated by Jeff Bridges.
Perfect in both form and symbolism, the arch began to take physical shape on February 12, 1963; construction was completed on October 28, 1965. The north tram to the top observation area was opened to the public on July 24, 1967; the south tram in 1968.
The National Historic Landmark designation for the memorial includes both the arch and the grounds. Designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley in concert with Saarinen, the grounds are considered one of the most significant contemporary landscapes in the United States.
After this first masterpiece, Saarinen went on to many more triumphant projects, including the General Motors Technical Center near Detroit, the TWA Terminal in New York City, and the Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.
Read more about St. Louis' travel attractions in the January 2013 issue of Cowboys & Indians, on newsstands in early December.