But, like the other 418 units of the National Parks Service, this stunning site on the banks of the Mississippi River follows the rubric of education, preservation, and enjoyment of our American heritage and experience.
And what could be more quintessentially American than the Gateway to the West, with so many narratives rolled into one?
First of all, there’s the Arch itself. Which, as an aficionado of midcentury design, I believe should qualify the site for Icon Status all on its own.
A catenary curve, 630 feet high and wide, the structure was architect Eero Saarinen’s final project. Even if you’re not as obsessed with all things midcentury as I am, you’re likely familiar with his other works like the TWA Flight Center or the Tulip Chair.
Made of 886 tons of Pittsburgh-fabricated 18-8 stainless steel, the arch was painstakingly assembled in parallel until the two sides breathtakingly and seamlessly met.
When the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association held a design competition for the monument to be built on this site, I highly doubt they had any problem choosing Saarinen’s wildly inventive creation over the others.
You can view models of all the competition submissions in the museum under the arch, and you’ll quickly see there was no competition at all in terms of creativity!
But why is it here?
Because it’s where St. Louis was founded by two French fur traders, Augusta Chouteau and Pierre Laclède, in 1764, and where the Mississippi River became the bustling highway of commerce from Canada to the Gulf.
It’s where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark finally set off for the Pacific with the Corps of Discovery (and Seaman, the dog Lewis adopted in Pittsburgh) in 1804 and where they returned in 1806.
It’s where the Dred Scott decision was handed down at the Old Courthouse, a legal battle that led the way to the Civil War.
It’s where the Oregon Trail set so many others across the continent to find their own piece of the American dream… or their fate of dying of dysentery after trying to ford the river. (Sorrynotsorry, those jokes never get old to this child of the ’80s!)
This conjunction of so many American stories makes the site ripe for a monument. And then to place such a visionary piece of architecture on this spot is the stainless steel cherry on top.
The museum does an amazing job of bringing these strands together, so carve out a few extra minutes to go through the parts that are most meaningful to you.
(For me, knowing so much about T.Jeff and his deal with Lewis & Clark, I didn’t feel bad skipping over that to read more about the architecture competition. And we had a tight schedule to keep on our Route 66 itinerary!)
Unless you’re extremely claustrophobic, the tram ride to the top of the arch is worth it. Only 4 minutes up and 3 minutes down, it rewards you with unparalleled views of the city, including the Old Courthouse, the Cardinals ballpark and the newly landscaped public parks surrounding it.
Tickets cost a bit more than $1 today, but your annual Parks pass will make the fee a bit more manageable. And once you’re up there, you can stay as long as you like before catching a tram back down.
With such a modernist design, the Gateway Arch may not seem like it’s as much of a trip back in time as other National Parks sites. But you’ll truly feel the expanse of history here if you go both deep and high.
Gateway Arch National Park
11 N 4th St, St. Louis, MO 63102
Open daily, 9:00 am – 6:00 pm.
NPS Fee: $3; pricing varies for tram rides and other museum add-ons.
*The minutiae of why one spot gets “upgraded” to a National Park vs. remaining a National Monument or other designation is somewhat bureaucratic in the end. Dan and I have fights over whether or not Gateway Arch was deserving of the new nomenclature, but I’m not here to argue that. I think the park is deserving of a visit no matter what label it gets.