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