ST. LOUIS – To mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Topping Out Day”—the harrowing placement of the keystone into the St. Louis Gateway Arch on October 28, 1965—a metaphorical keystone will drop into place with the completion of the new Park Over the Highway. Long severed from downtown St. Louis by Interstate 44, the Arch will finally be connected—by a pedestrian greenway—to the city for which it has so long stood as an iconic symbol.

In addition, the grounds around the Arch, known formally as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (in a nod to Thomas Jefferson’s pivotal role in the Louisiana Purchase), are undergoing a major renovation, as is the Museum of Westward Expansion (beneath the Arch), which is closed until February 2016.

This past summer, the floor-to-ceiling seventh-story windows of the CityArchRiver Foundation, the private-public partnership guiding the $380 million redesign process, offered a bird’s-eye view of the bustling construction grounds. Excavators were digging deep to place two 30,000-gallon cisterns that will retain and filter storm water to irrigate the landscaping.

The scene was somewhat reminiscent of the riverfront in 1941, when 37 blocks or so of historic buildings had been cleared to make way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, but because war was imminent, St. Louis wasn’t able to shake federal funds loose to start construction. The riverfront remained a gigantic, packed-dirt parking lot for years.

There wasn’t even a hard plan for the site until 1948, the year that Eero Saarinen won the design competition with his sleek, catenary arch. But the landmark structure would not be completed until 1965—a sight that Saarinen, who died of a brain tumor in 1961, would not live to see.

Today, from the CityArchRiver Foundation offices, the panoramic view is spectacular. You can see right through the legs of the Arch to the other bank of the Mississippi, where three times a day, the 630-foot-tall plume of the Gateway Geyser in East St. Louis—it’s the same height as the Arch—erupts on the horizon.

 

In the Spirit of Saarinen

Brooklyn landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), winner of the 2010 design competition to redesign the Arch grounds and the Gateway Mall, has managed to pay homage to Saarinen in subtle ways. Though the end walls of the lid over I-44 play a practical purpose in dampening traffic noise, they’re also beautiful: they’re based on the curved, sweeping highway overpasses that were part of Saarinen’s unrealized designs for Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.

“We realized we could bring in some of the midcentury modern swoops and curves, if we could get the Missouri Department of Transportation to splay the girders underneath the bridge,” says James Smith, senior associate at MVVA. “They had to switch to steel girders, which was a big deal for them, but amazingly, they said, ‘Oh, okay, yeah!’”

Though the exterior of the walls is “highway paint color”—dull gray—the interior will be sandblasted to reveal red concrete made from the area’s red clay soil, echoing the orange cast of the aggregate concrete walkways. Showcasing local materials was, Smith says, “one of our moments of practicing our hand at a little bit of modernism.”

He’s quick to add that MVVA’s designs are not “trying to be sister or brother to the Arch” or challenge the original design in any way—just enhance it. For instance, MVVA’s pathways in the park, which will lead up to a new semicircular, glass-walled museum entrance, are laid out in an arc.

“It’s more of a framing type of path,” Smith says, “an approach, pointing towards the Arch. What those curves are trying to do is not necessarily mimic an arch shape on the ground, but frame the views. A symmetrical layout is important, so you do end up with an arching shape.”

 

Greening the Grounds

MVVA’s stamp, Smith says, comes more in the guise of ecological innovations, which include plans for soil improvement and bioswales. The crowning achievement will be the rain garden writ large that the two 30,000-gallon cisterns will help irrigate atop the I-44 lid.

“We’re implementing all of these different landscaping practices on the ground that will change the way this park is maintained,” says Ryan McClure, communications director at CityArchRiver. That includes minimizing storm runoff into the reflecting ponds and the river, using predator bugs in place of pesticides, and fertilizing trees with spent grain donated by the Anheuser-Busch brewery in lieu of chemicals.

The 800 Rosehill ash trees that once grew alongside the processional walkways were taken out last fall. Planted in the 1970s over construction infill, they were never really healthy and would have eventually succumbed to emerald ash borers. A nursery is growing 800 London plane trees, which are similar to the American sycamore, as replacements.

“We felt very strongly that the London plane tree, with its strong visual characteristics and its mottled bark and the way its limbs kind of frame, or create an over-arching space, would be the best choice,” Smith says. “There are just not any other trees that will, in that great number, create the same arcade of arching limbs towards the arch.”

Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley had chosen tulip poplars, which were vetoed when work on the grounds began in 1970. (Evidently, they drop their leaves in the heat.) The rest of the Arch grounds are fairly true to the original design, which MVVA respected as well. They didn’t, for example, alter the shape of Kiley and Saarinen’s reflecting ponds.

 

The Grand Vision

Some changes, however, have helped enhance the original design. For example, the old cement Arch parking garage was demolished this spring. That did more than free up real estate—it got rid of a physical and psychological barrier between the Arch and the surrounding neighborhoods. “It had an island effect,” McClure says.

The riverfront walk will also be updated: CityArchRiver, partnering with Great Rivers Greenway, raised Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard 2.5 feet to mitigate flooding. Ironically, construction was delayed for several weeks this June due to flooding; however, as McClure says, it gave them the opportunity to see how the sidewalks, light fixtures, and railings held up (very well, as it turns out).

One thing that will stay untouched is the Grand Staircase, though MVVA designed two graceful East Slope Pathways alongside it. “Before, there was no way to get between the Arch grounds and the riverfront without taking those sixty-one steps of the staircase,” McClure says. Now, the riverfront walk will be handicap accessible for the first time in the site’s history.

When the Arch turns 50 this October, the river-walk elevation will be finished, the Park Over the Highway will open, and the grounds themselves will be complete. We will have to wait another year or two to experience the addition to Saarinen’s underground museum, the circular, glass-walled Museum of Westward Expansion, designed by New York–based Cooper Robertson with James Carpenter Design Associates and St. Louis–based Trivers Associates. McClure says that the Arch will stay open throughout the museum’s construction, though it will be closed two months next year for maintenance.

The new museum’s footprint will be expanded by 45,000 square feet and will feature cutting-edge interactive digital exhibits by UK-based Haley Sharpe Designs (who created the exhibits for the visitor center at another iconic public art site: Stonehenge).

 

Revisiting the History

How will the building of the Arch go down in history? With the impending anniversary quickly approaching, contemporary writers have felt pained to point out that the process was, at points, a bit less perfect than has sometimes been portrayed. As Jim Merkel noted in his 2014 book, The Making of an Icon, there are actual wrinkles in the metal skin of the upper part of the Arch, visible to the naked eye. And both Merkel and Tracy Campbell, author of The Gateway Arch, write about how neighborhood clearance and funding for the Arch’s construction were made possible by political graft and not one but two fraudulent bond elections.

Initially, lots of St. Louisans were hostile to the Arch. For a city still recovering from the Depression, using public funds for a big piece of public art seemed not just frivolous but offensive. The constant delays in construction didn’t impress them much, either.

It’s testament to the genius of Saarinen’s design that those complaints have faded from memory, as has the controversy that erupted almost immediately after Saarinen won the competition: he was accused of plagiarizing Italian architect Adalberto Libera’s giant arch for the 1942 Rome Exposition, which was an homage to Fascism.

In contrast, today, there’s palpable excitement over the revamped grounds and the new museum. The concerns of St. Louisans are much more prosaic: people have wondered, where’d that stuffed buffalo go? Never fear, McClure says: the crowd favorite in the Museum of Westward Expansion has a new home at a National Park Service site in Kansas.