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Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, the Design that Sustains St. Louis

saarinen architecture

This week, St. Louis celebrated the 49th birthday of the architectural icon that’s come to define our city: The Gateway Arch.

Completed in 1965, the Arch is the tallest memorial in the United States and the tallest stainless steel monument in the world. The Gateway Arch’s architect, Eero Saarinen took an abstract concept and created one of the most iconic monuments in the world. A man committed to his artistic vision and design that served the project at hand, he’s a role model for some of team TOKY and you can feel his influence around the office. Our custom CMS is named after him and one of our conference rooms boasts a Saarinen-designed tulip table.

In the spirit of the Gateway Arch’s birthday, however, let’s take a look at one Eero Saarinen’s most well-known works of architecture.


Eero Saarinen Gateway Arch St. Louis
Eero Saarinen with a scale model of what would become the St. Louis Gateway Arch


When the idea for a publicly funded riverfront memorial space was proposed in 1933, many in St. Louis opposed the idea, instead supporting more practical uses for the funds. For a metropolitan city still stinging amid the uncertainty of the Great Depression, the idea seemed absolutely frivolous. Civic leader Luther Ely Smith replied that the public also needed “spiritual things” like a public memorial to the frontier and the accomplishment of expansion. The public needed to remember their pride and hope. The project also promised jobs, which were badly needed at the time. That small stroke of luck helped earn public support and got the project started.


St. Louis Riverfront 1942


By the 1940s, the permits had been cleared and the acreage along the Mississippi River had been acquired. The National Park Service called for a design competition for a memorial that would be “transcending in spiritual and aesthetic values,” best represented by “one central feature: a single shaft, a building, an arch, or something else that would symbolize American culture and civilization”.

Of the 172 submissions, the top five finalists were announced on September 27, 1947. Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen’s design was among the finalists. The judges noted Saarinen’s concept was “relevant, beautiful, perhaps inspired would be the right word” and “an abstract form peculiarly happy in its symbolism”. A few months later in February 1948, Eero Saarinen’s design was the unanimous selection of the judging panel.

It took more than a decade to clear the Arch’s designs past state and federal governing bodies and to negotiate construction crews and costs. They broke ground for the Arch in 1959 and construction of the Gateway Arch began February 12, 1963.

Upon its completion on October 28, 1965, the Gateway Arch cost $13 million. Because of budget constraints, Saarinen’s full design for the grounds was not realized.


arch construction


It took more than three decades, but St. Louis had a memorial and a national park. By this point, St. Louisans fully embraced the new structure. Just three years after the official opening, the St. Louis phone directory listed 82 businesses now beginning with “Arch” or “Gateway.”



The Arch itself is a catenary curve, the idealized representation of a free-hanging chain bending under its own weight. Mathematically speaking, it is a hyperbolic cosine (not the parabolic arch that many armchair architects assume). In a catenary curve, the dip is created by tension from each end. In the inverse presentation, the catenary arch is supported entirely by compression from its own weight with no shear, or strain, on the structure.

As such, the width and height are nearly identical at 630 feet (give or take a fraction). Each of the Arch’s legs are equilateral triangles of 54 feet at the base, narrowing to 17 feet where they join at the top.


arch building blocks
From The St. Louis Post-Dispatch


The structural load is supported by a stressed-skin design made from stainless steel plates. The structure features the most stainless steel used in any one project in history. The external steel sheets alone weigh nearly 900 tons. The Arch is hollow due to the tram system that takes visitors up to the observation deck at the zenith. The small windows at the top of the Arch boast an impressive panorama of Missouri and Illinois depending on the side of the observation deck.

Though it appears delicate in construction, it is anything but. The base of each side at ground level has an engineering tolerance of 1/64” or the two legs of the Arch wouldn’t meet in the middle. Each leg is set 60 feet into the ground (a third of which directly into bedrock). As St. Louis is near the New Madrid fault, the Arch is designed to be resistant to earthquakes and can sway up to nine inches in either direction or weather winds of 150 mph without sustaining damage.


The second to last piece of the Gateway Arch is inserted c.1965
The second to last piece of the Gateway Arch is inserted c.1965


Saarinen himself was a man of few, dry, words. He described the design as “the gateway to the West, the national expansion, and whatnot” with the park below it to “be so densely covered with trees that it will be a forest-like park, a green retreat from the tension of the downtown city”.

Aline Louchheim, New York Times’ architectural critic, was a little more effusive in her description of the monument’s sketches in 1948, calling it a presentation of “boundless American optimism” and praising the “profoundly evocative and truly monumental expression.”


Artistic Admirers

In addition to being an inspired design, St. Louis’ Arch has inspired other artistic pursuits.

Dutch composer Peter Schat commissioned the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to perform a piece of his music intended to be the “musical equivalent to Eero Saarinen’s monumental Gateway Arch”. Schat’s piece, Arch Music for St. Louis, Op. 44 premiered on January 8, 1999. In it, Schat attempted to capture the experience of someone riding up to the top of the arch:

[T]he traveller head[s] heavenward in his tiny cabin—an imaginary journey intones. Propelled by the motor of a syncopated rhythm (Syncopated Allegro), the traveller/listener is hurled, with gigantic force and in one continual movement, to a summit of tranquility of an Adagio, his soul—the violin—contemplates the panorama of endless open spaces, the air, the shimmering river and the silently bustling city far below. . . . Forging a musical arch of about fifteen minutes that will do justice to Eero Saarinen’s technically and esthetically stunning achievement (a masterpiece, incidentally, that he never saw) requires compositional material with the tensile strength of steel. This metal can be found in the inexhaustibly rich mine of chromatic tonality. This tonality is to diatonic tonality as steel is to wood. Saarinen could never have built this monument out of wood.


Arch tram
Mid-century design abounds in the Gateway Arch tramcars


Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, set his poem “The Stoic” beneath the St. Louis Arch. Intended as an elegy for the couple’s miscarriage, Muldoon expresses his grief on hearing the news draws a literary parallel between the shape of the Arch as both a birth canal and a graveyard monument. He said of writing “The Stoic”:

I’ve this notion … that there might be some connection between standing underneath [the Gateway Arch] … and feeling something of the despair that figures in Ozymandias, and the bleakness and just the terrible isolation of this moment I see the Gateway Arch as being a modern version of the two vast and trunkless legs of stone.


Gateway Arch in spring


The Gateway Arch is more than steel. The Arch represents where St. Louis has been and where it’s going as a city. Built as a monument to westward expansion in the United States, it stands above the Old Courthouse and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park and museum. This park commemorates the Louisiana Purchase which allowed American explorers and pioneers to move the national territory further west.

A champion of the neo-futuristic style, Saarinen was criticized by contemporaries for lacking a distinct vision and style like many of his peers. Recent years have seen a resurgence in appreciation for his works for precisely that reason. Rather than viewing his work as lacking vision, modern architects and critics see his pluralistic approach as a project-by-project flexibility that served the unique client and project while staying true to an overarching aesthetic of clean, futuristic lines. He is now considered one of the masters of American 20th-century architecture.

Proving to be a visionary ahead of his time, many of his designs feel very at home with current architectural trends.


Visitor_observation area_top_of_St_Louis_Gateway_arch_looking_south_426
Inside the observation deck on top of the St. Louis Arch

When Saarinen’s daughter, Susan, visited the St. Louis Gateway Arch for the first time in 1987 at the age of 42, she took the typical tourist’s approach. Riding up to the top of the Arch in the capsule tram, she took in St. Louis from the observation deck of her father’s structure. As a child, her father’s project had seemed so common in her home that she never stopped to consider it’s importance or uniqueness while growing up. As the Post-Dispatch reported that day, “she said, ‘Thank you, everyone’… Then, glancing back over her shoulder, ‘Thank you, Daddy.'”

St. Louis looks toward a remodel of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds coinciding with the 50th birthday of the Gateway Arch in 2015 and the centennial of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in 2016. Eero Saarinen’s original master design for the grounds is finally being completed. His unified design includes a cobblestone plaza between the Arch and the river, an extension of the park covering the highway that now bisects the Archgrounds from the Old Courthouse, and an amphitheater.


Van Vanlkenburgh Associates proposal for redesign of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds
Van Vanlkenburgh Associates’ proposal for redesign of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds

To St. Louis, the Gateway Arch is a memorial to westward expansion, but it is also a bright reminder that things worth having take time. Luther Ely Smith’s “spiritual” touchstone made real through Eero Saarinen’s inspired vision. It’s too easy to look for simple solutions for a complicated city. For our region in any generation, it stands as a reminder of the good we can accomplish with a clear vision and optimism tempered with realism. The construction of the Arch took the region from the Great Depression, through World War II, and into the Atomic Age, all while the city changed around it.


Saarinen with model
Eero Saarinen inspects a model of the Arch

By the time the grounds are redeveloped to complete Saarinen’s design, it will be interesting to see the continued evolution of St. Louis.


Images courtesy Missouri State Archives, National Park Service, Yale University Archives/Eero Saarinen Collection, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Michael Van Valkenburg and Assoc.

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Written by Lindsey Vehlewald