Arch Enemies?

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Forty-three years after Eero Saarinen’s gleaming St. Louis Gateway Arch was completed, and nearly three decades after the trees were finally planted in the surrounding Dan Kiley–designed landscape, the national park is going through growing pains.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and the Danforth Foundation, a private fund dedicated to raising the metropolitan area’s profile and promoting economic development, have been in talks to boost flagging tourism. And as a signature project, they want to alter the grounds around the arch with a world-class museum.

In October, museum plans gained momentum when Representative William “Lacy” Clay, a Missouri Democrat, introduced a bill that would strip the Kiley grounds of their national historic landmark status, transfer the grounds to a nonprofit entity created by the foundation, and allow the museum to move forward.

But those plans have pitted the city and foundation against the National Park Service and a number of national preservation groups, who argue that the museum would degrade the site’s rich historic character and mar a classic work of modern landscape architecture.

Officially called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the urban riverfront park is so steeped in history it precedes the birth of the United States. Set atop a lovely, curving landscape with the 1834-era Old Cathedral on the edge of the grounds, the arch already incorporates a below-ground Westward Expansion Museum. 

Yet the park is underused, and structurally cut off from downtown by a busy street and several depressed lanes of highway crossed by two pedestrian ramps. Across these lanes is another section of the federal park, the Old Courthouse, home of the city’s civil courts from 1818 to 1876 and site of the original 1847 Dred Scott slavery case, which helped fuel the Civil War.

The feud over the park’s future has come down to one major stumbling block: the proposed museum. “That’s our sole criteria,” said Peter Sortino, Danforth Foundation president. “There’s 91 acres of the arch grounds, and we’re not talking about using more than three or four of it for this above-ground museum.” 

Tom Bradley, superintendent of the park, is cool to the idea. “I think a new building could be seen as an intrusion,” he told AN. “The Kiley landscape is seen as a palette for the arch.”

In January, the park service intends to present its own plans for revitalizing the memorial, including a design competition for new program elements on the grounds. Any such changes, the agency emphasized in a statement, must remain “compatible with and respect the grounds’ status as a National Historic Landmark.” In the meantime, Clay has placed the legislation on hold while the park service’s plan plays out.

Rerouting the streets that separate the arch grounds from downtown could have benefits visually and for space, since it would free up real estate that is not historically protected and could be used for a museum, Bradley said.

Kiley, who died in 2004, collaborated with Saarinen closely to come up with the grounds that mimic the arch’s inverted catenary curve. With three miles of intersecting curvilinear trails, two reflecting ponds, gentle hills, and allées of trees, the landscape was such an integral part of Saarinen’s design that he insisted Kiley make the spec drawings from which the contractors built the project. Rolling hills disguise a nearby highway bridge, several roads, an operations plant, and a railroad tunnel running under the grand steps that lead to the river.

“It’s the connective tissue between the landscape and the city,” said Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, who has been passionate about saving Kiley’s work. “Instead of trying to understand why it’s broken, we often do these wholesale changes,” he added. “It really is one of his most important surviving projects.”

Saarinen died in 1961, so he did not live to see the project completed. But Kiley did. Bob Moore, the historian of the arch with the National Park Service, had many discussions with Kiley about it, and thinks most people don’t fully appreciate the grounds. “They don’t consider that there’s a design element to it, the way that you move through a space,” Moore said.

The collaborative nature of the design process has given this modern landscape particular significance, since there are aspects of it that were designed by Saarinen and parts that were Kiley’s. “I’ve always tended to think that if it was a Frank Lloyd Wright structure and an Olmsted landscape,” Moore said, “there wouldn’t be any doubt or question why it’s important.”

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