But it is the new name that encapsulates the larger cultural changes to the National Park Service site, which has been give a $380 million renovation and redesign. What was once known as the Jefferson National Expansion Park has been recast as the Gateway Arch National Park. That change simply reflects how people think about the park, says Eric Moraczewski, executive director of Gateway Arch Park Foundation, a nonprofit group that partnered with the National Park Service to raise funds and oversee the renovation. There is no intention to downgrade Jefferson’s importance or the park’s original purpose, which was to memorialize “the men who made possible the western territorial expansion of the United States,” including “the great explorers, Lewis and Clark, and the hardy hunters, trappers, frontiersmen and pioneers,” according to a 1933 statement by a local civic group that championed the idea of building something monumental on the Mississippi waterfront.
The name change, however, also reflects two facts
that have long bedeviled the arch and its role within the National Park Service. Saarinen’s soaring arc of steel is an icon of the automobile age, an attraction that has always been more about playing to the passing audience of the interstates than any particular relevance to the idea of national expansion. It also honors historical events that are now understood as deeply problematic within the larger trajectory of American history, including the dispossession of Native American land, cultural genocide, the extension of slavery, centuries of conflict and ill will with Mexico, environmental degradation and the emergence of a myth of American exceptionalism.
The arch, in short, has always been beloved because it binds together two feel-good ideas that are essential to American identity: a heroic past of grit and conquest, and a triumphant future of innovation. Now, well into the 21st century, the challenge is how to disentangle and even dismantle those ideas while salvaging the arch as a cultural object. The solution, mostly effective, has been to think in terms of connection, both to the city which hosts it, and to the deeper currents of history that led to its creation.
Standing on the grassy deck which crosses Interstate 44, Moraczewski points to the nearby Hyatt Hotel, where the concierge used to call taxis to ferry people a few hundred feet to the arch grounds before the renovation. “The arch operated as an island,” he says. “Our island was about roads, not water, but people came to the arch and never went into the city.”
The connecting park isn’t terribly wide — just shy of the 300-foot width which would have defined the structure as a tunnel, rather than a bridge, requiring costly ventilation and other mandated changes. But it is wide enough to include trees and benches and arcing paths that attract a lunchtime crowd, dog walkers, joggers and tourists from the nearby hotels. It also emphasizes a connection between the arch and the historic courthouse which faces it, the courthouse where Dred Scott pursued his freedom from slavery, and where a Missouri judge decided that allowing an enslaved person to claim freedom because they resided in a free state would lead to the inevitable “overthrow and destruction of our government.”
The arch grounds now flow seamlessly into the plaza that fronts the courthouse and lead visitors to the sunken, glass-walled entrance to the museum. Before the design changes, there was nothing to indicate that the arch park had anything in it other than an arch, and visitors encountered the underground museum as a sideshow to the main attraction, which was a ride in the cramped and clanking elevator cars that deliver people to the observation room atop the 630-foot tall structure. Now, visitors are greeted by a semicircular and embracing entrance, from which they descend into the museum via a large, open atrium with a terrazzo map of North America on the mezzanine floor, showing the main migration routes during the era of westward expansion. Giant video screens project images of buffalo running, and wagon trains moving through a backdrop of mountains and open range. These videos set a slightly odd tone — grand and nostalgic — which isn’t sustained in the rest of the museum.
The new exhibitions, created by Haley Sharpe Design, are more substantial, extending the story of westward migration back to the colonial days of St. Louis, and grappling with the fundamental questions posed by the historical narrative. In a gallery devoted to Manifest Destiny, wall panels ask not only “How the West Was Won,” but was the west “stolen,” and what of the North — as Mexico understood the same land — and was it “stolen” too? “After the Louisiana Purchase, women lost many rights . . .” reads another wall panel, noting some of the cultural impacts of the purchase of territory inhabited by Native Americans, then claimed by the French, ceded to the Spanish, reclaimed by Napoleon and ultimately transferred to the United States in 1803. “Does staking claim to land justify national ownership?” asks another exhibit, devoted to the exploration of Lewis and Clark.
Videos allow Native Americans to address these questions in personal ways, and take stock of the dreadful loss of life, land and culture that came with European incursion into the continent. But these voices are compartmentalized in the usual fashion of contemporary museum design, which tends to an a la carte approach to history. If your understanding of the age of westward expansion is all about free-roaming buffalo, covered wagons, steamboats plying the Mississippi and frontier women baking hearty meals, you can find that too. Haley Sharpe Design, which also created the Democracy galleries for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, adds texture to the story, makes connections (to trade, and the larger economic and cultural context) and avoids conclusions, even when dark conclusions are ineluctable.
The museum concludes with the design and construction of the arch itself, which was an urban renewal project that led to the loss of the colonial-era street grid, and hundreds of buildings, many erected in the 19th century. It was an exercise in branding, a scheme cooked during the Depression and sold on a national scale. It took more than 30 years between the inception and the opening of the arch. Saarinen died in 1961, long after he won the 1947 design competition, and well before construction was completed in 1965. The museum notes that the realization of Saarinen’s futuristic vision happened during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement and that African Americans protested at the arch site for not having equal access to construction jobs on the project.
In the intervening years, Jefferson’s stock has fallen, and Saarinen’s has soared. He is a revered figure of modernism, and the arch is probably his best-known and most-loved project. With the Gateway Arch, he not only created an architectural spectacle grand enough to fill the site, but he helped define one of the essential trends of architecture for the past half-century, the dominance of iconic power over function. The whole idea for a park and a monument to westward expansion was bizarre: Why in St. Louis, when other cities could also claim to be the Western gateway? And why an arch, which suggests the pioneers somehow passed through a giant croquet wicket?
But Saarinen finessed the problem rather like corporate architects today finesse the problem of housing large, impersonal, often rapacious organizations in buildings that suggests transparency, openness and idealism. He found a gesture that overwhelmed skepticism, both skepticism about the viability of the project, but also the larger historical skepticism that Americans have traditionally found inconvenient and dispiriting. His arch stole the show, which made it possible to avoid the history, except as a passing entertainment. Saarinen understood how essentially American the arch form was, a symbol of triumph and conquest that is hollow at its core.