Exhibit examines Arch and riverfront change from blight to bright

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial — popularly known as the St. Louis Gateway Arch — is the tallest monument in the United States and an icon of modern architecture, its great stainless steel arc embodying strength, elegance and simplicity.

Yet creation of the Arch was anything but simple. Indeed, it is a story of frequent uncertainty and sometimes bitter controversy, as planning, design and construction stretched across more than three decades.

Eero Saarinen’s original design had the Gateway Arch being built on the banks of the Mississippi River and only 590 feet tall.

Beginning at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, in Steinberg Hall, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts will explore that history with an exhibition and symposium titled “On the Riverfront: St. Louis and The Gateway Arch.”

Curated by Peter MacKeith, associate dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and associate professor of architecture; and by Eric Mumford, Ph.D., associate professor of architecture, “On the Riverfront” will profile the people, events and conditions that culminated in the 1947-48 competition from which Eero Saarinen’s design was chosen as well as the monument’s subsequent construction and its place in American architecture.

“The significance of the Gateway Arch in Saarinen’s career as well as in the development of St. Louis’ postwar identity is unquestionable,” said MacKeith, who also serves as St. Louis coordinator for the exhibit “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.” That exhibition — the first major museum retrospective dedicated to the architect — also opens Friday, Jan. 30, and will be on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum through April 27.

“There is a degree of attention given to the Arch within the retrospective,” MacKeith said. “But the Arch is such an icon of St. Louis, condensing histories of place and purpose and civic pride, that we felt this would be a good opportunity to explore the broad civic vision that ultimately brought the Arch into being. It is not a story of which people are really aware.”

“On the Riverfront” begins with a condensed history of the St. Louis region from the time of the Cahokia Indians through Spanish settlement, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition to statehood and industrialization. Yet, by the early 20th century, much of the riverfront had fallen into disrepair, and local leaders were beginning to explore strategies for revitalization.

Chief among these was Luther Ely Smith, a lawyer instrumental in bringing the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to St. Louis.

Smith first conceived the idea of constructing a memorial on the banks of the Mississippi in 1933, and, the following year, with the help of Mayor Bernard Dickmann, he co-founded the nonprofit Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM) Association to enlist federal support.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the proposed 90-acre site as a national park, and the city, having passed a bond proposal and armed with the power of eminent domain, began leveling 40 blocks in preparation for a national architecture competition.

The site was cleared by 1942, but the JNEM Competition was delayed by the onset of World War II. When the competition was revived in 1947, it proved a massive success, drawing 176 entries — many of which will be on view.

Such important St. Louis figures as Harris Armstrong, Charles Eames and Gyo Obata submitted entries, as did international modernists such as Louis Kahn, Isamu Noguchi and Eliel Saarinen, Eero’s father. (Famously, when jurors announced the five finalists, a telegram was sent to “E. Saarinen,” and, for a few hours, the family mistakenly assumed that Eliel had advanced.)

“These are all visions of what the riverfront could have looked like if any other entry had been chosen,” MacKeith said.

“In many ways they provide a snapshot of postwar architectural concerns. The issue of the day was what we now call the ‘new monumentality.’ How do you make architecture after the second world war? How does one memorialize anything after the Holocaust, or in the shadow of nuclear warfare?” MacKeith said.

The final section highlights Eero Saarinen’s winning design, a gracefully inverted catenary arch — calculated with the help of structural engineer Hannskarl Bandel — that bears little resemblance to prewar memorials.

Also on view are a number of Saarinen’s subsequent drawings and models, which chart subtle changes and modifications in the years leading up to construction (which, delayed by the Korean War, did not begin until 1963).

For example, while the original proposal called for a structure 590 feet tall and located on the banks of the Mississippi, the final plan was lengthened to 630 feet and moved to slightly higher ground.

“This is a city of great beauty, which approached its riverfront with great purpose and deliberation,” MacKeith said. “Yes, there are tangled and difficult histories prior to 1947 and subsequent to the Arch’s completion. But there was also this astonishing moment of the competition. It’s a moment that seemed to encapsulate St. Louis’ past and present, and one that remains intertwined with our civic future.”

Support for “On the Riverfront” is provided by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. The exhibit will remain on view through March 9. For more information, call 935-9300 or visit samfoxschool.wustl.edu.

Learn more in a daylong Arch symposium

In conjunction with the exhibition “On the Riverfront: St. Louis and The Gateway Arch,” the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts will host a daylong symposium of the same title beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 31.

Topics of discussion will include “The River and St. Louis,” “The JNEM Competition and the Design of the Gateway Arch,” “The Era of the Arch” and “The Riverfront and the Arch.”

Participants will include Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, chief researcher and co-editor of the exhibition catalog for “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future”; architect Robert Burley, who led the Arch design team for Eero Saarinen and Associates; and Charles Birnbaum, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation and former coordinator of the National Park Service Historic Landscape Initiative.

Also participating will be landscape architect Susan Saarinen (Eero’s daughter) and former Finnish ambassador Matti Häkkänen (Eero’s second cousin) as well as architects, historians, critics and scholars from St. Louis and abroad.

Formal proceedings will be published and distributed following the symposium.

For more information, call 935-9300 or visit samfoxschool.wustl.edu.