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New design at Arch grounds requires balancing act

September 23, 2010

Audio Story:

(Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)

The current pond on the Gateway Arch Grounds.

Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known as the Gateway Arch, is entering a new era.

This week landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh and his team were named the winner of an international design competition.

Their design includes a green lid over Interstate 70 to reconnect the downtown to the monument,a new west facing entrance for the museum, and a few additions to the grounds, including an ice rink and Urban Ecology Center.

As St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports the goal is to bring more people to the Arch but preservationists say any changes to the monument’s landscape must be done carefully.

If you ask St. Louisans when they last visited the Arch, for most, it’s been a while.

Darnell Miller took his son to the Arch six years ago. Lesia Hudson says she hasn’t been there since 1982, and Cameron Atwood took his mom up in the Arch some ten years ago.

All three work downtown, practically in the shadow of the Arch.

It’s a problem the man who oversees the Arch and its grounds for the National Park Service, Tom Bradley, is well aware of.

“People do visit usually when Uncle Joe visits every five or ten years,” Bradley said. “We want to change that.”

He says the challenge is to give visitors more to explore without marring the vision of the monument’s creator.

Back in 1947 architect Eero Saarinen envisioned above-ground restaurants, cafes and museum buildings here on the grounds as part of his winning design.

But a decade later, when the project got underway, Saarinen wanted a modern landscape to better match the simple but bold form of the Arch. That meant no buildings above ground.

Bob Moore is an historian for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Bob Moore, historian for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

He says Saarinen did not like clutter.

“Just to give you an example, if you’ve ever seen the chairs that he designed, the tulip chairs, they only have one support because he said there was a clutter or forest of legs under the table,” Moore said. “He was doing the same sort of thing here. It’s a real simplicity. It was almost a Japanese zen-like simplicity that they were looking for.”

Saarinen, along with landscape architect Dan Kiley, designed curved walks and reflecting pools that mirror the Arch itself.

The winner of the current competition, MVVA, suggests additions to that landscape, like a natural amphitheatre, ice rink, and Urban Ecology Center.

That makes St. Louis preservationist and historian NiNi Harris a bit nervous.

NiNi Harris, author of Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch and also a preservationist and historian.

“There’s a lot of pressure and discussion to put all sorts of stuff here that, ten years from now, will we look at as just clutter as trendy?” Harris asked.

The author of “Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch,” Harris has spent a lot of time on these grounds.

She feels the Arch and its Modern landscape are perfectly matched.

“There is a soaring beauty to them,” Harris said from a bench on the grounds. “There is a confidence in this whole design. We are so fortunate to have it. We need to be very careful as we think through things to have on these grounds.”

Harris says she trusts the National Park Service will be a good steward, and she hopes St. Louis residents will support the agency.

Back at his office in the Old Courthouse, supervisor Tom Bradley says now that the winning team has been announced the National Park Service will have plenty to do.

He says they’ll work with MVVA to make sure the team’s design complies with historic preservation and environmental regulations and with the current landscape.

“To some degree the heavy lifting really starts because we become a client, we work with the firms,” Bradley said. “So it’s going to be a lot of give and take.”

If all goes as planned the work should be finished in 2015, in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the Arch’s completion.

© Copyright 2010, St. Louis Public Radio

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 24, 2010 1:12 pm

    My father would never have been able to compete in this latest competition. His firm wasn’t big enough. Only large firms capable of fast tracking this project were invited to submit their qualifications, so it wasn’t an open competition. The program was extremely difficult, as they all are these days, because, among other things, the business community wants involvement on a National Historic Site. Further, the judges participated in workshops with the entrants, so it wasn’t a blind jury process as was the original competition for a memorial. That said, I can think of no one more committed to preserving the spirit of the original landscape designed by my father and Dan Kiley than Michael Van Valkenburgh. For him, this landscape is personal. Lastly, I hope the City Fathers in West St. Louis maintain their commitment to connect to East St. Louis. This should have been done in the first place.
    Susan Saarinen, daughter of Eero Saarinen

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