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An Icon of Modernist Architecture Turns 50: Happy Birthday to St. Louis’ Gateway Arch

St. Louis’ Gateway Arch may well be the most bittersweet of the world’s iconic monuments. The planned focal point of a park built in the 1930’s to celebrate Thomas Jefferson, and the expansion of the United States westward, spurred by the “Louisiana Purchase” (the land buy that the President made from the French, doubling the size of the United States), its creation required the destruction of 40-blocks worth of important, historic buildings, many of which were from the very era the park was celebrating.

“Today there would have been laws to prevent such wholesale destruction,” ruefully remarks Frank Mares, the Superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the official name of the Gateway Arch). “But in 1935 when work on the park was beginning that sort of mindset was not widespread.”

Sadly, those important buildings are gone forever, but for the 50th anniversary of the park, one goal will finally be achieved for the surrounding park: it will be redesigned to create a seamless connection between the city of St. Louis and the riverfront. Since the park’s inception, a railroad line, and later a highway, made it difficult for arch visitors to stroll down to the water. Some $380 million is being invested to create a “Park Over the Highway” which will include handsome pedestrian walks guiding visitors from the monument to the banks of the mighty Mississippi river. Also in the works: a new museum under the arch itself. Both are expected to be open to the public by 2017.

And before that, the city of St. Louis is going to throw two lollapalooza celebrations to for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 completion of the modernistic arch that is the tallest man-made monument in North America. On October 28th there will be the Arch 50 Fest with music and food, and on the 28th, at 11am (the hour when the Arch’s construction was completed), a program featuring some of the original builders, the architect Eero Saarinen’s daughters and others, who will speak of the complexities of building this massive structure, which used some 900 tons of stainless steel, more than any other project in history.

Most importantly, the arch will remain open during the festivities and reconstruction of the surrounding park, allowing visitors to take the thrilling ride to the top of this “catenary curve” (the mathematical shape a free hanging chain makes when held at both ends—Saaarinen’s inspiration for the unique shape of the arch).

For complete information on visiting the Gateway Arch, either during or after the festivities, go to

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.