The Gateway Arch

The Gateway Arch

During the western expansion of the United States, St. Louis figured prominently as the center of activities for the forward-looking aspirations of the nation. Ironically, as the U.S. grew territorially, St. Louis languished in importance from its former days as a great city in Mississippi.  During the Great Depression–itself an era of thwarted national ambitions–efforts to revive America’s fortunes returned to St. Louis. It became, once again, a symbol for future prosperity. The one-time heart of the city–the crumbling and abandoned waterfront–served as the source for a new memorial to commemorate the territorial expansion of the U.S. during a time when there was little to celebrate. Moreover, the hope was that the construction project would bring jobs to the St. Louis area and revitalize the city. Given the grandiose dreams for the memorial, the project needed a design the would signify once-and-future American greatness.

Physical Characteristics

Today, the Gateway Arch stands on the banks of the Mississippi River, its inverted catenary shape making it an unforgettable image that most Americans know. Less well known is its position as the tallest monument in the U.S., which its dimensions readily confirms. Its 630 feet is matched by the same measurements of its width from one end of the arch to the other. Each end of the arch is composed of equilateral triangles. At the base, the dimensions are 54 feet per side; and as the arches rise, the dimensions narrow to 17 feet per side (with a stainless steel skin stretched over carbon steel walls, which are then reinforced with concrete). The concrete poured to support the its structural load is 25,980 feet at each end of the arch, 44 feet deep and 60 feet deep.


The genius of the arch to accommodate its grandiose aspirations lies with the combination of the architecture designed by Eero Saarinen and the engineering formulated by Hannskarl Bandel. They were able to realize a project that was first proposed in 1933, create a noteworthy project, and execute an ambitious construction task. Saarinen’s legacy is conflicted, given he was largely lauded for most of his career, until ridiculed, then finally rediscovered by the fine arts community. Bandel’s contribution is even more impressive, given that he needed to create a mathematical equation for the arch and present the solution to hyperbolic cosine function that supported an inverted catenary.


The monument’s planners wanted a memorial for American civilization’s triumph and conquest over the continent, replete in the trappings of modernism but without the trappings of nationalism and jingoism. It partly succeeds on an aesthetic level. Architectural professor and American Institute of Architects member Donna Robertson says, “The arch is such a powerful symbol in an abstract way of why the country expanded to the west, in the way that it straddles and marks the line between the sky and the earth and draws our attention to the Big Sky country that lies beyond. The idea that there was ample opportunity to claim land and transform their lives in that way.”  Still, that the project was overseen by the “United States Territorial Expansion Memorial Committee,” belies its nationalistic origins. The impulse to revitalize the St. Louis city should be recognized as a progressive impulse, and maybe, a legacy of the civic-minded goals behind the “city beautiful” movement. That President Roosevelt’s New Deal supported the National Park Service, which oversaw the building of the arch with the promise of adding 5,000 new jobs, made the construction project part of a larger effort to restore American civilization, for the promise of a greater tomorrow.


Admittedly, the promises of the Gateway Arch might lay largely unfulfilled, given that the jobs did not come to St. Louis, nor it arrest the demographic decline of the city. Nevertheless, the site of the Gateway Arch is still a location for efforts to unite the past with the city’s future. The memorial is a testament to human ingenuity, an example cited by collegiate engineering programs and part of the national narrative that continues to support national historic landmarks.

Additional Resources

The Gateway Arch stands as a symbol of the past and future aspirations of the United States.

(Image by Tim Tolle via Flickr Creative Commons.
Courtesy of St. Louis Public Radio “News for St. Louis.”)