Saarinen's St. Louis Arch embodies American ambition

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Eero Saarinen's monument to the opening of the American West and its progenitor Thomas Jefferson could not be more simple–nor more powerful. A stainless steel arch that soars above the banks of the Mississippi River in St Louis, the Gateway Arch is a brilliant and many-layered symbol of the heart of America and of the modern age.

Built to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase, the officially named Jefferson Westward Expansion Memorial was established by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 as the nation's first National Historic Site. But the arch memorializes far more than the opening of the trans-Mississippi West. (Lewis and Clark began their expedition across the new land to the Pacific from here.) The genius of this 630-foot-high piece of abstract sculpture is that its absolute simplicity allows many varieties of interpretation. As Saarinen wrote, "I was trying to reach for an absolutely permanent form–a high form."

The competition for the memorial was held in 1948, work began in 1958, and the arch was completed in 1965, after many revisions. Its designer was a little-known 38-year-old Finnish immigrant. He was, nevertheless, the son of Eliel Saarinen, one of the most respected European architects and director of the influential Cranbrook Academy of Art, often called the cradle of American modernism. There were 172 entries for the gateway memorial, and entrants included such well-known names as Walter Gropius, Minoru Yamasaki, Louis Kahn, Charles and Ray Eames, and the elder Saarinen. Members of the jury included MIT dean William Wurster, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Jefferson scholar Fiske Kimball, and the architect Richard Neutra; the competition advisor was the architect and soon-to-be chairman of architecture at Yale, George Howe. The jury's vote for the younger Saarinen's design was unanimous.

Finance and siting issues delayed construction of the arch. There was a decade-long delay while the railroad was relocated from the levee. The riverfront had already been cleared of 40 blocks of historic structures, including the oldest house in the city. (This provides a troubling insight into how we deal with our past, as the commercial hub of Western expansion was razed for a park to commemorate that story.)

Saarinen and his co-designers, his wife the sculptor Lily Swann Saarinen, designer Alexander Girard, and Dan Kiley put the time delay to good use. Kiley, who would become the premier modern landscape architect, had almost 90 acres of park to lay out, including a proposed mini-forest of trees as an homage to Saarinen's Finnish homeland.

The most important change to the winning design was the tweaking of the arch. It was made forty feet higher, and the shape was changed from a parabola to a more graceful catenary arch. The result was a giant abstract sculpture wrapped in stainless steel, what the architect called "the most permanent material we have."

Only a few years after America saved the world from totalitarianism, we found the energy to create something so astoundingly bold. Not a single worker died during an incredibly perilous construction. It was also completed in the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, as the nation's fabric unraveled over the Vietnam War and social issues.

Saarinen went onto design number of notable civic monuments that challenged our ideas of how to design corporate headquarters, tall buildings, airports, college dormitories, and houses of worship. That fruitful creative burst was cut short by his premature death at the age of 51 in 1961. Architecture between the end of the war and the turn of the millennium experienced multifarious changes, not least of all the architect's reputation. (A proposed Bicentennial exhibition on the arch's designer at the Smithsonian was shelved when a poll of architects determined that Saarinen was passé.)

Now, half a century since its construction and almost thirty years since it won the AIA's Twenty-five Year Award, the St Louis Arch is firmly enshrined in the pantheon of the world's most recognizable and greatest works of architecture. Eero Saarinen hoped that his design would provide "a symbolic gateway to the west." But it has evolved into so much more than that.

The Gateway Arch is a tribute to many noble values: western civilization, an immigrant's vision, the promise of America, the frontier spirit, the Mississippi River of Huckleberry Finn, modernism, American technology, our country's greatest contributor to the Enlightenment. This beloved and courageous stroke upon the Midwestern sky has become a Walt Whitman-esque song to ourselves.

William Morgan is an architectural historian and writer. He lives in Providence, RI.  

Image credits

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Henryk Sadura for Getty Images

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