While originally a symbol of the westward expansion set forth by Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, the Gateway Arch now acts as both an icon of St. Louis, Missouri, and a uniquely American piece of architecture. The arch attracts around four million visitors annually and has been visited by approximately 135 million people since it’s opening over fifty years. It has been, ever since it’s inception, the most visited place in Missouri, and is a nationally recognizable landmark. Topping out at 630 feet, the arch is the tallest self-supported building in Missouri as well as the tallest monument in the Western Hemisphere. The arch’s shape is a weighted catenary arch, mimicking the inverted shape of a cable or chain hanging downwards while supported from both ends. This shape allows for forces on the foundation of the arch to pushing directly downwards rather than inwards, leading to increased stability and steeper legs. The center of the arch is able to sway up to 18 inches in either direction, and the structure is built to withstand winds of 150 miles per hour.

The process leading to the construction of the Arch began in 1933. Civic leader Luther Ely Smith introduced the idea of a restoration effort of the west bank of the Mississippi, proposing a park be built there to act as a focal point of the community. Also, as a part of the nationwide effort to create jobs and alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, the project was expected to create 5000 jobs over the course of 3 to 4 years. It was given to the National Park Service for management, and Roosevelt approved the memorial, allocating 82 acres and $6.75 million to the project. Acquiring this land involved the demolishing of over eighty blocks of slums on the west bank of the Mississippi, an extremely unpopular decision as the displaced communities were not compensated for their losses. Furthermore, railroad tracks crossing the intended site would have to be moved, a process requiring a further $5 million.

Before completion of this park, a competition for the design of the central monument, one“transcending in spiritual and aesthetic values”, was announced in 1944. The project was awarded to Eero Saarinen, who would later design the Washington Dulles Airport in Washington D.C and TWA Flight Center in New York, and who beat out his father, esteemed architect Eliel Saarinen, for the honor. His initial design was chosen unanimously by the judges and would be Eero’s first independent project. The design was declared “an abstract form peculiarly happy in its symbolism” (Charles Nagel) Ground was broken on June 23rd, 1959, and construction of the arch itself started on February 12th, 1963. This was done by connecting 142 twelve foot long steel sections, each resembling triangles, which were then filled with concrete and crossbars. Each leg of the arch was built separately and was to be joined at the top by a keystone. The two arches would have to meet at the top within 1/64 of an inch of each other for construction, and the arch’s stability is a testament to the precision and attention to detail of its builders. The structure is mostly hollow, allowing for a tram system to be placed inside.

Each tram carries fourty passengers up to an observation deck at the top of the arch, from which visibility is over thirty miles on a clear day. The tram system constituted a large problem during construction, as Saarinen would have to incorporate the transportation system completely internally, keeping the outward appearance of the arch the same. The tram system today acts like a Ferris Wheel, with passengers taking the trip up in small spherical cars that remail level during the trip. The cars run on tracks, and transport the passengers to the top in approximately four minutes, serving over 10,000 people a day.

Photographer Art Witman, working for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was the sole photographer responsible for documenting the Arch’s construction, being given complete access to the construction site. He took panoramic photos of the construction and climbed the arch both during construction and afterward to get the aerial component found in many of his photos. His assignment for Pictures Magazine was widely praised, and Witman, an advocate for the newly blossoming field of professional photography, became somewhat of a celebrity for his body of work.

Fortunately, no workers were killed, but numerous setbacks occurred during construction of the arch. The opening ceremony was delayed multiple times, and the keystone was placed on October 28th, 1965, a couple of weeks after the initially expected data. The opening ceremony was rained out, and the monument did not initially receive as much attention as expected. Ultimately, construction of the arch did not result in the creation of many new jobs, but it did incite other nearby construction efforts, including the Busch Memorial Stadium, and helped to revitalize downtown St. Louis. The arch, drawing such large amounts of tourists, encourages businesses to try and cater these tourists, and develop the area further. In total, the arch has incited an estimated $503 million worth of construction from private companies throughout St. Louis.

Another major construction effort is the recent $380 million remodel of the Gateway Arch park, including construction of a walkway connecting the park with downtown St. Louis, miles of new walkways and the surrounding scenery, and an updated museum. Prior to this, the only route from the Arch to downtown was by either Ubering across a highway. The aim of this renovation was to improve the park without altering the arch and blur the distinction between downtown St. Louis and the attraction. It is also intended to make the area surrounding the arch more aesthetically pleasing, a common complaint from over the years. The new museum aims to correct the narrative told by the old, incorporating exhibits displaying 6 interactive exhibits on Native American culture and uncovering untold stories of women and children in America’s past, while focusing less on the normal narrative of Colonial America and Manifest Destiny.

The atypical form of the Arch attracts stunts, which are illegal due to the Arch’s status as a national monument and important part of a national park. At least ten pilots have flown through the arch, despite the threat of losing their license to fly. Many of these have occurred in smaller, one person aircraft, and none have occurred recently. Human stunts involving the arch have been rarer. In 1980, Kenneth Swyers successfully landed atop the top of the arch using a parachute then attempted to use a second chute to land safely on the ground. Unfortunately, the wind blew him off balance once atop the arch, and he slid off one of the legs, unable to activate his chute. Another man, John. C. Vincent, successfully climbed the arch using suction cups in 1992 and parachuted back to the ground. He caused quite a commotion, and upon landing fled the scene to avoid being arrested. His accomplices were caught, however, and he turned himself in under charges of climbing a national monument and parachuting in a national park. Vincent had also earlier famously BASE-jumped off the World Trade Center.

While the arch was built to represent the journey westward of colonial settlers, cementing St. Louis’ name as the “Gateway to the West”, it today represents so much more. It has become a key part of St. Louis culture, and one of the iconic images of the midwest, as well as American architecture. The simplicity of the arch and its freestanding nature invokes the independence and resilience of these settlers. The gateway arch has become far more than it’s minimalistic design would suggest, but therein lies the beauty of the monument.


Baskas, Harriet. “St. Louis Is Spending around $380 Million to Beautify Its Landmark Arch: Here’s What’s Coming.” CNBC, CNBC, 6 July 2018, 

“Gateway Arch National Park (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, .

Gateway Arch

Robert Osserman, How the Gateway Arch got its shape, Nexus Network Journal (2010).