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Towering over St Louis, Missouri — its 886 tons of curving stainless steel a monument to America’s westward expansion — the Gateway Arch is the tallest arch in the world. From the observation deck at the top of the 630-foot structure, visitors can see for up to 30 miles in any direction. It may be one of America’s most recognizable monuments, but here are six things you might not know about the fascinating history of the Gateway Arch.
A Father and Son Competed to Design the Arch
The search for an architect for a new monument at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial took the form of a competition. Among the 170-plus submissions received in the 1947 contest was a design from acclaimed Finnish-American Eriel Saarinen featuring a tall stone gate. His son Eero also entered.
Several months later, a telegram arrived at the Saarinen offices intended to inform Eero that he had made the shortlist; however, it was addressed to Eriel by mistake. Father and son celebrated a family success with Champagne. When the administrative error was discovered, they opened a second bottle and toasted Eero instead. In the end, it was Eero’s design vision which resonated most with the judging committee. His dazzling stainless steel arch, inspired by the catenary curve, was a standout.
A decade later, Eero Saarinen designed the famed TWA terminal building at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and would also be influential in choosing the relatively unknown Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s iconic design for the Sydney Opera House.
The Arch Is as Wide as It Is Tall
You’ve probably seen photos where the arch looks taller than it is wide, but it’s an optical illusion. The arch measures 630 feet tall, and if you measure from leg to leg at ground level, that’s also its exact width. But because the shape of the arch draws the eye upwards and narrows as it rises, our brains don’t accurately process the dimensions, and we convince ourselves the arch is taller than it actually is.
While it’s far from the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the Gateway Arch is the tallest monument — and Missouri’s tallest accessible building. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, is slightly taller than the Gateway Arch, but it’s located a couple of degrees off the Prime Meridian, putting it in the Eastern Hemisphere.
The Unique Trams to the Top Were Designed in Just Two Weeks
How to get visitors to the top of the arch proved trickier than first thought, as Eero Saarinen demanded a solution that would not alter its exterior appearance. Engineers considered elevators, escalators, and even a Ferris wheel, but none of those options were practical. Finally, Saarinen hired an elevator parking specialist named Dick Bowser and gave him just two weeks to come up with a solution. Bowser presented his idea of a custom-built tram, and the puzzle was solved.
Two separate trams operate independently, one inside each opposing leg of the arch, and take four minutes to reach the top. Each tram consists of eight pods and holds five passengers. These pods begin their journey horizontally, suspended from a track above. As the track turns vertical, the pod pivots to ensure passengers remain upright, rotating 155 degrees in total. The trams use a series of cables, counterweights, and other features to function safely.
The Gateway Arch Is a Symbol of National Identity
Saarinen’s monument is the centerpiece of Gateway Arch National Park. The park dates back to 1935, when the National Park Service created a space to represent Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a transcontinental United States and St. Louis’ role as a gateway for westward expansion. Jefferson believed the American West was worth exploring, and not the empty wilderness that some of his contemporaries believed it was. During his presidency, he secured the Louisiana Purchase and sent Lewis and Clark to map the Missouri River and find a way beyond the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean.
The original name for Gateway Arch National Park was the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The arch itself came several decades later, constructed between 1963 and 1965. It stands between the Mississippi River and the Old Courthouse, where the landmark Dred Scott case was tried. The monument honors both Jefferson and Scott and is dedicated to “the American people” overall. Six themed exhibits trace key events in U.S. history from 1764 to 1965, celebrating America’s pioneering spirit and the impact of westward expansion on landscapes and communities.
Building the Park Was a Controversial Decision
Though proponents envisioned a project that would revitalize the waterfront and stimulate the St. Louis economy, the plans to build the Gateway Arch National Park were met with opposition. Much of the financing came from federal funds, but some felt the money could have been better spent improving the lives of the people of St Louis instead.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approved the plans in 1935, he set in motion a chain of events which would lead to what one city engineer called “an enforced slum clearance program.” Amid allegations of vote-rigging, the order was given to raze several blocks of riverfront real estate to the ground. They contained many small factories employing around 5,000 blue collar workers.
That wasn’t the end of the controversy. When World War II came, the site stood derelict for a decade. Later, when construction of an interstate kick-started the redevelopment, it initially isolated the park from the surrounding neighborhoods. The issue that wouldn’t be fixed until 2018, when the CityArchRiver project, dubbed the “park over the highway” came to fruition and finally provided a pedestrian link to downtown St Louis.
Eisenhower Is the Only President Who Has Ascended the Arch
Several U.S. presidents have visited Gateway Arch National Park, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. However, security concerns prevent a U.S. president from actually ascending to the top of the Gateway Arch. In the confined space of the trams, they’d be vulnerable, but an exception was made in 1967 for Eisenhower.
While construction on the arch was completed in 1965, it wasn’t until July 24, 1967, that the inaugural public ride on the north tram took place. The attraction was then still a work in progress; the south tram wouldn’t be completed until the following year, while the landscaping and the Museum of Westward Expansion were still several years away.
But in November 1967, Eisenhower accompanied Dick Bowser to the top of the Gateway Arch, going against the wishes of the Secret Service. Even so, there were certain conditions attached to his rule-breaking journey. It couldn’t be an official part of his itinerary (that way details wouldn’t be published in advance) and he’d have to visit outside regular opening hours to avoid the general public. Eisenhower agreed — and who could blame him for not wanting to miss out on such an experience?