Design drawing for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Competition

Library of Congress


A Gateway to the Past

The Arch in St. Louis stands as a monument to contradictory histories.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the 16th installment in the series.]

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis was built to stand beyond time. Its mathematical truths embodied timeless principles and its materials were meant to endure, forever stainless. Without ornamentation or words to betray the time of its creation, the Gateway Arch seemed to rise out of the ground of its own momentum. The tallest historical monument in the United States, it seems to belie history.

Abby and I knew little about the Gateway Arch, though it had stood in St. Louis since we were children. We had a vague idea that the Arch symbolized the “gateway” to the American West, the notion of earlier generations of white Americans that the west had been “won” and “opened” by wresting it from Native Americans. It was unclear what such a message might mean today.

The Arch’s own history, detailed in a fine book by the historian Tracy Campbell, proved to be more protracted than we suspected. St. Louis business and civic leaders, their city suffering in the Great Depression, first pitched the idea of commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a continent-wide United States with a monument on the Mississippi riverfront. In 1804, soon after the United States had purchased the Louisiana Territory, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Discovery launched their boats nearby. St. Louis had staged a successful world’s fair a century later, where x-rays, private automobiles, and Dr. Pepper were introduced to the nearly 20 million people who attended. Dreaming of turning the Lewis and Clark mission into a permanent attraction, city leaders approached Franklin D. Roosevelt with hopes that the Democratic president, his party claiming descent from Jefferson, would invest some of the largesse of the swelling federal budget in renewing St. Louis with a public works project. Roosevelt demurred, however, wanting to meet more obviously practical needs than a new symbolic site could provide. The project stalled, but the dream endured.

Between 1939 and 1941, city leaders prepared the way for someday achieving that dream by destroying 40 blocks of neighborhoods along the waterfront, including what had been the largest array of cast-iron buildings in the world. Black residents bore the brunt of the displacement, pushed to places less prominent and less promising for public monuments. Yet nothing arose in the place of their former homes, businesses, and churches. For years, the St. Louis waterfront remained a giant gravel parking lot, a monument to misplaced ambition.

Victory in World War II renewed the hopes of city leaders for a monument to the nation’s greatness. In the late 1940s, St. Louis held a competition to choose an architect for a memorial on the Mississippi. The winner was Eero Saarinen, a young Finnish-American architect in Michigan. The arch he proposed — 630 feet tall, higher than the Washington Monument — captured the modernist spirit of confidence, hope, and innovation that was stirring in postwar America. But again, the project stalled as the city struggled to gain the resources to build such an ambitious structure, and as Saarinen struggled with the technical challenges of constructing an immense arch of stainless steel. It was not until 1961 that conditions came together to begin construction on what had come to be known as the “Gateway Arch.” Saarinen died of a brain tumor at the age of 51, never to see the structure rise. Others would surmount the technical obstacles to building such an unprecedented structure, and in 1965 the keystone of the Arch was fitted into place.

Through this prolonged journey, the history the arch was meant to symbolize came in and out of focus. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. was constructed in the meantime, so the commemoration of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase did not seem as urgent. On the other hand, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed the peak of “the Western” in many forms. Novels, movies, and television shows about cowboys and Indians, about wagon trains and forts, about the cavalry saving the day, became a national obsession. White American boys such as myself posed with toy revolvers slung low on our hips and cowboy hats low over our eyes. We took turns playing “Indians,” ready to die after our foolhardy ambush of the cowboys.

To many adults, the role of the United States in World War II seemed the fruition of a Manifest Destiny that encompassed not only a continent but the entire world. For them, the communists of the Soviet Union and China posed a threat that had to be confronted with the same spirit, and firepower, that had conquered the American West.

The Gateway Arch, therefore, unified American history in an unanticipated way in the 1960s, fusing the past, present, and future in a display of technology and confidence. The historical exhibits installed at the time celebrated the nation’s destiny as a story of white progress and prosperity. A stuffed buffalo stood as an iconic and ironic monument to what had been sacrificed. Though the new interstate highway system steered an ever-growing stream of cars to the giant parking deck of the Gateway Arch, downtown St. Louis continued its steady decline, losing population as the popular tourist attraction failed to create broader growth. Instead, the Arch and the highways that fed it tore at the fabric of the depleted city.

Black people had been denied jobs in the skilled building trades during the construction of the Arch, despite repeated attempts and protests. They and others argued that the monument itself was misplaced, that the most enduring contributions of St. Louis to the United States had come through the music and culture created by Black Americans, from Chuck Berry to Dick Gregory to Miles Davis. That history, despite pleas to save the neighborhoods where Black culture had flourished, and to create a museum of the blues and its descendant music, had been ignored by white officials.

Abby and I knew nothing of this history when we arrived on a Monday afternoon. We parked Bertha in a surprisingly empty parking lot not far from the Gateway Arch, grateful for the convenience. We stopped at a new Blues Museum on the way to the arch, admiring the exhibits and the rich history, especially of women singers such as Bessie Smith, that it displayed. We walked across a beautifully landscaped plaza that led us to the Arch, not realizing that we were crossing over an interstate highway beneath.

St. Louis Gateway Arch [Image: Abby Ayers]

Online, we had signed up for a ride to the top of the Arch, a viewing of a film about the building of the structure, and a virtual experience of the St. Louis riverfront in the 1850s. The museum at the base of the monument had been reimagined by the National Park Service in 2018, and reflected a nuanced and sophisticated portrayal of the national “expansion” the St. Louis proponents of the memorial had first imagined in the 1930s. The triumphant story of Manifest Destiny no longer dominated. Though Thomas Jefferson’s vision and the Corps of Discovery still occupied displays, the Native peoples of what the United States called “the West” played prominent roles. They were portrayed as individuals, with names, faces, and tribal identities. The Indigenous peoples were not represented simply as victims of by-gone wrongs, but as vital communities in the present day.

The displays about the territorial growth of the United States acknowledged that expansion had not been the natural unfolding of progress. One prominent exhibit challenged the very notion of destiny, asking if it was not in fact a “design” — an intentional deployment of the political and military power of the United States — to take lands to which it had no claim. In large letters facing the main concourse, a quote from a Massachusetts Congressman in 1848 declared the war against Mexico, a critical step towards seizing the continent, “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.” A display on the battle of the Alamo acknowledged that Texans opposed the centralized government of Mexico and “also wanted to keep slaves, even though Mexico had abolished slavery.” Even if the Arch had been intended, generations before, as a monument to the untarnished glory of America’s history, the museum told a fuller and truer story.

Exhibit at the Gateway Arch [Image: Abby Ayers]

The film about the construction of the Gateway Arch marked an abrupt change of tone and focus from the exhibits about the 19th century. Produced in the 1960s, the film spoke in the tone of the television on which Abby and I had been raised, narrated in the confident voice of a white America at the forefront of technology. The story of the Arch’s construction was indeed remarkable and stirring, as workmen maneuvered sheets of stainless steel into precise locations without harnesses and with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. There was no acknowledgement of the warfare against the American Indians, of the dislocations St. Louis residents suffered to make way for the monument, or of the protests of Black men denied work on the project.

The 1960s flavor continued as we stood in line for the tram ride to the top. The museum took advantage of the captive audience, and the dark gathering spaces, to project timelines, faces, and images of the years before and after the Gateway Arch opened. Images of pop-art flowers prepared us to enter into the tight fiberglass pods that would carry us to the top, spaces evocative of carnival rides of our youth, perhaps because they were in fact inspired by the swinging mechanism of a Ferris wheel. At the top, like a million other people each year, we viewed the Mississippi River and the city below from windows small enough to preserve the integrity of the Arch’s structure.

“Pod” seating to reach the top of the St. Louis Arch [Image: Abby Ayers]

As we left the Arch, we noticed that St. Louis has embarked upon a new reclamation of history. Its Old Courthouse is being restored. There, visitors will be able to learn about Dred and Harriet Scott and their protracted suit to claim freedom after living in the West. A museum will tell the story of Black people in St. Louis from slavery through freedom. The Gateway Arch National Park, then, is a prism that refracts multiple histories: the westward push of the United States in the 19th century, the civic boosterism of the 20th century, the technological accomplishments of the Cold War era, and the democratic museums of the 21st century.