Since 1965, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch has stood strong as the 630-foot monument to westward expansion. In those 50-plus years, millions of people have flocked to the iconic landmark annually to admire its sleek design, enjoy the museum below and peruse the community around it.
Unfortunately, the Arch’s initial design had Interstate 64/40 running just outside of its bounds, making walking from St. Louis’ downtown straight onto the Arch grounds nearly impossible. Seeking to instate Arch designer Eero Saarinen’s original vision of making the Arch accessible from downtown, the National Park Service created a new general management plan for the Arch grounds in 2009. From there, CityArchRiver Project partners broke ground in 2013 on a new plan to reimagine, connect, enhance and transform the Arch.
In the time since, members of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation and partner organizations have been working tirelessly to reveal the new and improved Arch to the world – which they did on July 3. The $380 million project was funded by $221 million of private donations and $90 million of sales tax revenue from the passage of Proposition P in 2013. The revamp includes a reimagined museum that adds decades to its predecessor, an expanded visitor center and revitalized park grounds that include more than 5 miles of pathways – including a green space that directly connects the Arch grounds to downtown.
Executive director Eric Moraczewski and communications director Samantha Fisher took LN on a tour through the upgrades and pointed out the difference the revamp will make in how both St. Louisans and out-of-towners view the bow-shaped landmark.
The front desk – one of the first things visitors see when they come through the new west entrance – will be staffed by members of both the National Park Service and Explore St. Louis. Moraczewski says this will allow visitors to get recommendations of what to do in the surrounding area.
“The park service is going to do an amazing job of telling you what’s here on these grounds, but we’ll also have someone to guide you through the rest of the community, too,” Moraczewski says.
On entering the underground facilities, visitors will find a gigantic terrazzo floor map that displays all the trails the pioneers took on their journey west, with St. Louis highlighted in yellow.
“It’s the first glimpse of establishing why this museum is here in St. Louis and the important role our city played in the exploration of the western part of our country and the settlement of it, too,” Fisher says. “We lay out not just Lewis and Clark but also the impactful role we had on the California exploration, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail.”
The new museum, which has been in the works since 2010, has more than 100 years of additional history and 46,000 additional square feet. The new exhibits incorporate universal design, which is accessible for people of all abilities. During the museum’s creation, there was also an effort to showcase different perspectives of the people of the time – like those of the Native Americans, Mexicans, women, African-Americans – which are scattered throughout the exhibits.
“That’s something the park service is very intentional about and has highlighted throughout all of the galleries in the museum,” Fisher says.
Unlike the original museum setup, which was off to the side of the tram entrance, the new layout has visitors walk through the center part of the museum to get to the trams, encouraging guests to peruse along the way. Soundscapes and touch screens help bring the museum’s spaces to life and make for a more interactive, dynamic experience.
“A large majority of people were just coming in and going to the trams,” Moraczewski says. “Now, you’re noticing it right away, and something will catch your eye.”
The museum is set up chronologically, beginning with establishing colonial St. Louis in the late 1700s. Key features of the first section include an animated fly-through of what the village of St. Louis would’ve looked like in 1797.
“Our park historian wrote a 40-page essay that detailed everything down to the doorknob of what the village was like,” Fisher says. “Our animation studio built this beautiful film for people to see. It’s neat to see what village life would’ve looked like, especially for St. Louisans.”
That section of the museum also contains an example of the kind of home that would’ve been built in French colonial St. Louis: a vertical log cabin. The National Park Service preservation team built the museum’s cabin on-site using mostly traditional tools, which added an authentic touch.
Another featured structure is the Old Rock House: built in 1818, torn down in 1959 and resurrected from the basement of the Old Courthouse for the new museum.
“The park service preserved the stones and the frames in the basement of the Old Courthouse, so the historic preservation team came out and rebuilt this on-site,” Moraczewski says. “When you walk in, you walk through a piece of history.”
Within its 100-year addition is a section on the actual building of the Arch – something that wasn’t touched on in the old museum aside from the film shown to tram riders. The exhibit showcases the five designs that were part of the monument competition and demonstrates Saarinen’s innovative model in comparison to the other finalists’ offerings.
“There was no competition,” Fisher says with a laugh. “He won unanimously.”
Now that the project has been completed and the Gateway Arch National Park is fully open to the public, Fisher says the organization’s focus is on stewardship.
“In addition to continuing to provide additional funds for the support [the National Park Service] will need to maintain the park, we’re also working really hard to engage the people of St. Louis to come and experience the park with event series all year long,” Fisher says. “We want to get people down here. We have a national park in our backyard, and we want our city to take part in it. The Arch is for everyone.”
Gateway Arch Park Foundation, 314-881-2015, archpark.org