Eero Saarinen: the Gateway Arch, St. Louis

During the Great Depression, civic leader and Missourian Luther E. Smith proposed to the mayor of St. Louis that a spectacular monument on the city’s riverfront area would be a way to attract visitors and stimulate the economy.[1] President Franklin Roosevelt designated property along the riverfront and federal funds to develop the overall $30 million project, which was nevertheless delayed by World War II.[2][3] In 1947, the St. Louis planning committee held a competition to determine who would build the “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial” – the monument’s original name – intended to celebrate the 3rd president’s purchase of Louisiana which doubled the territory of the United States in one fell swoop.[4] The committee received many entries, including separate designs from two members of a Finnish-American design family who lived in Detroit named Saarinen – from the father, Eliel (1873-1950) and the son, Eero (1910-1961). After narrowing the field to five, the committee awarded the commission in 1948 to Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen with his arch-shaped design, with its inspired shape that acted like a gateway to the West.[5] Construction of the arch was completed posthumously in 1965 after Saarinen’s untimely death in in Michigan 1961, and opened to the public in 1967.[6]

E. Saarinen, 1960 (

Thomas Jefferson
3rd President, 1743-1826

The new structure sparked a number of riverfront building projects, including the Museum of Westward Expansion, two theaters, and a statue of Thomas Jefferson, to complement the iconic monument.[7]

The gross dimensions of the Gateway Arch are, in effect, a square – with width and height at 630 feet each.[8] Saarinen chose the shape of a mathematical curve called an inverted weighted catenary, the shape formed by a freely hanging chain, for its unmatched stability.[9] Each leg is an equilateral triangle with sides 54 feet long at the base and 17 feet long at the top.[10]  The legs are made of double-layered carbon-steel walls and reinforced concrete, encased and supported by a stainless steel skin.[11] Embedded in 60 feet of concrete and bedrock, the arch is resistant to earthquakes and can withstand winds up to 150 miles per hour.[12] Located directly below the arch is a 70,000-square-foot visitors center, accessed through ramps at the base of each leg. Inside, the public can visit the underground Museum of Western Expansion and two theaters that show movies about westward expansion and the arch’s construction.[13] Visitors can also ride the 40-passenger tram through the interior of the arch, up to an observation deck near the top.[14] Saarinen positioned the arch so that it would be axially oriented toward the Old Courthouse, a landmark significant to St. Louis’ history.[15] The landscape design echoes the curves of the monument, and the surrounding river, sidewalks, and views of downtown St. Louis anchor the arch to the city.[16]

In 2018, the memorial was officially renamed the Gateway Arch National Park to embrace the full downtown site envisioned in the 1930s.[17] The arch was newly dedicated to the visionaries who shaped the nation and the region after the Louisiana Purchase, including the explorers Lewis and Clark and their Native American guide Sacagawea, as well as former slaves Dred and Harriet Scott and suffragette Virginia Minor, who famously fought for their rights nearby at St. Louis’ Old Courthouse.[18]

The arch is the tallest man-made monument in the United States, an example of classic curvilinear mid-century design, and an icon of the state of Missouri which attracts four million visitors a year. Saarinen (father and son) would have been proud to know that the Gateway Arch received the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Twenty-Five Year Award for lasting significance, and ranked fourteenth on the AIA’s 2007 “America’s Favorite Architecture” list.[21][22] The Arch is one of many Eero Saarinen structures in a stunning career cut short, yet completed during our period of the 1960s, including also the TWA Flight Center (Queens NY, 1962), North Christian Church (Columbus, IN, 1964), and the CBS Building in Midtown Manhattan (NY, 1965).



[1]Sharon A. Brown, “Chapter I: 1933-1935: The Idea.” Jefferson National Expansion.
[2]Brown, “Chapter I: 1933-1935: The Idea.”
[3]J. E. N. Jensen, “Materials and Techniques.” National Parks Service.
[4]“About,” Gateway Arch.
[5]Roland Klose, “Timeline: Idea Born in the 1930s, Realized in the ’60s, Reimagined in the 21st Century.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
[6]Klose, “Timeline: Idea Born in the 1930s.”
[7]Klose, “Timeline: Idea Born in the 1930s.”
[8]Jensen, “Materials and Techniques.” National Park Service.
[9]Jensen, “Materials and Techniques.”
[10]Jensen, “Materials and Techniques.”
[11]Jensen, “Materials and Techniques.”
[12]“About,” Gateway Arch.
[13]Brown, “Chapter I: 1933-1935: The Idea.”
[14]Jensen, “Materials and Techniques.”
[15]“The Significance of the Gateway Arch Landscape.”
[16]“The Significance of the Gateway Arch Landscape.”
[17]“Frequently Asked Questions.” Gateway Arch.
[18]“About,” Gateway Arch.
[19]Heidi Glaus, “Gateway Arch Draws the Most Visitors in St. Louis.”
[20]“About,” Gateway Arch.
[21]Roger K. Lewis, “Honoring the Time-Tested Design Saarinen’s St. Louis Gateway Arch.” The Washington Post.
[22]Alex Frangos, “Americans’ Favorite Buildings.” The Wall Street Journal.

Leave a Reply