Behind the Scenes of the Gateway Arch National Park Renovations

    When the Gateway Arch National Park showed off its impressive new look on July 3, HEC was there. In a series of behind-the-scenes segments on hecmedia.org, we looked at the new museum and Arch Grounds as well as the the National Park Service’s plans for the park.

    That day was a long time coming. The idea for the Gateway Arch National Park was first conceived in the early 1930s by civic leader Luther Ely Smith who hypothesized that building a memorial at the riverfront would both revive the riverfront and stimulate the economy. With then-Mayor Bernard Dickmann and legislator Leonor K. Sullivan joining him as champions, the city managed to raise their portion of the funds required and finally convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 7253 on December 21st, 1935, approving the memorial, declaring the area as the first National Historic Site, and allocating a total of $6.75 million of federal funds toward the project.

    The international contest to design the memorial officially opened on May 30, 1947, and on February 18th of the following year the jury unanimously chose the unique design of a young relatively unknown architect – Eero Saarinen.

    “He didn’t want anything that was limited to the Earth. He wanted something that was lofty and rose into the sky to demonstrate the ideals–to demonstrate how it takes a leap of faith to do anything monumental, and have it be something that was not a traditional obelisk, tower or dome,” said Rhonda Shier, the Chief of Museum Services and Interpretation at the Gateway Arch National Park. “He thought the arch would be unique and impressive. It’s very, very tall, and the people who judged the competition said they agreed – they loved it.”

    Our National Park – the “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial” was finally founded in 1935 to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a transcontinental United States. The park stretches from the Old Courthouse to the steps overlooking the Mississippi River.

    There were more delays to come, but when when the Arch was completed on October 28, 1965, the monument – 886 tons of stainless steel fashioned into a seamless arch with such precision that if either leg had been off by more than a fraction of an inch it would not have joined properly in the middle – stood as a shining beacon for the city.

    Our national park received few updates after that date until this massive, five-year, $380-million renovation project started construction in 2013 – though the planning and fundraising actually began in earnest back in 2011.

    It has been a massive undertaking – completely redesigning the grounds around the riverfront and Arch, Kiener Plaza, and a completely new museum—and we’re not done yet! Renovations to the Old Courthouse are coming soon.

    “They’ve done a great job with the renovation, and you know, this is the first time in 52 years that there’s been a major renovation, so it was something I think was desperately needed,” Former Cardinal and Baseball Hall of Famer, Ozzie Smith told HEC at the grand opening.

    Bob Moore, the Gateway Arch National Park historian, had the monumental task of distilling St. Louis and the Arch’s history into just six galleries. “We’ve especially tried to be sensitive and tell stories that highlight all the diverse groups of people who were here in St. Louis,” said Moore – especially individuals who often wouldn’t be included in the history books.

    One central message the museum designers and historians kept in mind throughout – why is the Arch here?

    “First, to symbolize that St. Louis was a gateway, especially to the American West back in the 1900’s, but also there was more to it. There were all the people who stayed here – who did all the manufacturing and worked on the riverboats, and the railroads, and all the other things that made St. Louis the great city that it became, and all emanated from this spot where the Arch is today,” said Moore. “So we wanted to try to tell that story.”

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