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At Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Old History Made Way for New History


The iconic Gateway Arch dominates the St. Louis riverfront. Old History was demolished to make way for this New History. Photo by Bev Sykes via Wikipedia.

Forty blocks of St. Louis’ historic waterfront were demolished in the 1940s to make room for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Boosters insisted that this was basically a matter of breaking a few eggs to make an omelet. Many preservationists call it a supreme act of vandalism.

Let me get this in right up front: I admire the Memorial. Its iconic Gateway to the West Arch is one of my all-time favorite pieces of public architecture, and the not-for-claustrophobics tram ride to the observation room at the top of the 630-foot high arch yields a marvelous view into downtown St. Louis, up and down the Mississippi River, and into Illinois. The Memorial’s Museum of Westward Expansion is a delight, too, and the Old Courthouse – the place where Dred Scott famously (and unsuccessfully) sued for his freedom – is a first rate historical treasure.

It is for good reason that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is one of the Park System’s most popular units (nearly 2.4 million visits in 2007). In fact, this park attracts more visitors in the month of July than most other national parks get in several years.

This said, I remain seriously conflicted. This marvelous Memorial was brought into existence on that particular site through means so disgusting that it pains me to think about it. In fact, it would be great to be ignorant of the facts. As the old saw goes: If you respect the law and like sausage, you shouldn’t watch either being made. To this we’ll add: If you love the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, you should never think about what, at least metaphorically speaking, lies crushed beneath its footprint.

St. Louis is a city with a deep and proud past. Strategically positioned near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, it became an important urban center – the first one to emerge north of New Orleans -- long before there was a United States. There wasn’t much in the way of civilization west of there. In fact, St. Louis was the last decent-sized urban center that the Lewis and Clark Company of Discovery, the mountain men, and the westering pioneers encountered as they headed on up the Missouri to the Platte, the Rockies, and beyond to Oregon, Washington, and California. Westport and Independence were the actual jumping off points for the westward trek across the Great Plains, but St. Louis was the regional trade center, key river port, and seat of government. Few quarrel with the city’s claim of being the “Gateway to the West.”

The thing of it is, this Gateway to the West has been a classic river-oriented city for most of its existence. As late as the 1930s, nearly all of St. Louis’ most important historical buildings were on or very close to the Mississippi. And it is on the waterfront, quite logically, that the city decided that its great Memorial would be constructed.

In 1933 a prominent St. Louis civic booster, Luther Ely Smith, proposed a grandiose Memorial to be constructed on the site of the originally platted city of St. Louis. The “old city” district occupying that prime piece of riverfront property had deteriorated and was unsightly. Lily envisioned the Memorial project as a vehicle for accomplishing two important tasks -- getting rid of a blighted district, and creating a new symbol of the city’s vital role in the westward expansion that followed Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase. It was an urban renewal project with a twist. Conceptually, it was “Out with the Old History (the untidy, but real past), and in with New History (the orderly, shiny, glorified past).”

Lily’s campaign won over the people who mattered. On December 21, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7523 to establish the Memorial. The city of St. Louis, which had already floated a bond issue, used eminent domain and $7 million to acquire the riverfront property. Nearly all of the historic structures that were in the way of the new Memorial were demolished by 1942, Then World War II intervened and it wasn’t until 1950 that President Harry Truman officially dedicated the Memorial construction site. The Memorial’s focal attraction, the enormous stainless steel Gateway Arch (largest monument in the entire U.S.), was authorized on May 17, 1954, and completed in 1965.

Today, more than 40 years after New History replaced Old History on the St. Louis riverfront, few people who visit the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial give deep thought to the fact that the Memorial’s footprint covers the originally platted area of St. Louis, the site of the Spanish capital of Louisiana (basically the entire Louisiana Purchase area north of present-day Louisiana), the site of the Battle of Saint Louis (the only Revolutionary War battle that was fought west of the Mississippi River), and the site of the Three Flags ceremony in 1804 (wherein Spain turned Louisiana over to France, which promptly turned it over to the United States), and the site of the first capital of America’s Upper Louisiana district. Even fewer know or care that the demolition of the originally platted area took out literally dozens of historically significant structures associated with the city’s early role as Gateway to the West.

But many preservationists know these facts and mourn the loss of buildings like the "Old Rock House" 1818 home of renowned fur trader Manuel Lisa and the 1819 home of original St. Louis pioneer Jean Pierre Chouteau (to name just two). Would we be so quick to destroy priceless treasures like these today? Especially to make room for a national park?


Lost to many, but not all, and I never saw the arch as glorified. Once it made it past boring-yearly-field-trip status, it became a glistening monument to the hardship and horror of pushing white men Westward. It became a monument to the ability to polish history into a happy, child-friendly, textbook-like story. Yet, the architecture of the monument and its visual appeal draw me there every time I return to St. Louis. We Missourians know more of Lewis and Clark than anyone west of the state, and its appeal as a statement to history has waned.

A respectful version of history preserved is in Greenfield Village in Detroit. Quashed by city growth, a moment of time is revived by a small plot of property of historical performance and modern maintenance. Can St. Louis care to reconstruct a portion of what lies beneath the footprint of who rewrites history? Not likely, but many a ghost town take you back nonetheless.

Ann, I think only a very tiny minority of Americans consider the Arch boring or think of it as a symbol of hardship and horror (the suffering of the pioneers, the slow motion Holocaust that was the Indian Wars, the environmental devastation in the prairies and mountains, etc.). The history-polishing has been very successful. These days, symbols like the Gateway Arch are taken pretty much at face value by the typical American, which is to say a person whose understanding of history is half a mile wide and half an inch deep. As for Greenfield Village, it's a museum for "hodge podge history with a capital H" that blends concepts honed to perfection by Disney, P.T. Barnum, and "Believe it or Not" Ripley. Never mind that history has a place and time. It's novelty and curiosity that matter. Display the chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot ("is that real blood on the head rest?!"), haul Thomas Edison's lab in from New Jersey and put it on display (and don't forget to bring the dirt under the building), etc., etc. etc. If that's the way we should be remembering and teaching history, Lord help us.

Bob & Ann,

It's too bad that the National Parks System gets saddled with things like the Arch, and Mt Rushmore. They make me queasy. We sure made fun of the Soviets for doing this sort of stuff. I was reminded of our ridicule of Russian pompousness, in the early days of the Iraq war as the populace made sport pulling down Hussein's idolatry, (looting) his palaces.

Today, we could use those surplus Cold War ballistic missiles & warheads to peen the profile of Lenin ... or Lincoln ... into the face of the Moon. How cool, huh? Both, facing each other!

I like seeing the use of the phrase, "the slow motion Holocaust that was the Indian Wars". In Washington State, the North Cascades, Rainier and Olympic units are organized in a joint archaeological survey. One of the lead guys at Rainier includes in his main paper that the idea is gaining credence, that disease spread from the colonies in Mexico Indian-to-Indian decimating as it went, first arriving in the Pacific Northwest cultures in the 1570-1590 time frame.

I have seen reports, that Lewis & Clark included in their logs, that they asked about the 'extra' abandoned cedar-plank lodges at the Pacific Coast where they wintered, clearly enough to house far more natives than then in the area, and were told they had all died of disease. The logs also recorded that the L&C command noticed lesions & scabs on the vulvas of the women, identified them as known venereal diseases, and forbade the men from taking comfort or pairing with the local females.

The first colonies on the East Coast noted that the natives were present at saturation levels 'everywhere', but then watched them die off massively ... of diseases which they recognized.

Biotechnology will probably soon enable us to make accurate determination of the diseases that killed ancient people. These techniques will enable us to track in detail how decimating epidemics swept across the continent, freeing up the scene for European immigrants.

Although the early settlers did not have the Germ Theory of Disease, they certainly knew the nature of contagion, and they were certainly quick to quarantine & burn sick-houses, and to prevent the entry of carriers into their communities. They knew what was happening to the Indians.

The account of the loss of the North American native population is a long ways from being fully-told, and some of our finest nature-Parks are likely to be caught up in the story.

Ted, it's interesting that you mention the Soviet approach to public architecture (huge-heroic-stylized). The arch was a product of its time, so some people are naturally going to try to make something of the fact that the arch was designed and built during the heyday of Soviet public architecture. Though the design of the arch may not have been propaganda-inspired, the result was the same. Had Stalin lived to see the arch he would have understood what the designer intended even if he didn't know squat about the settlement of the American West.

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