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Gateway to Empire: An Interpretation of Eero Saarinen's 1948 Design for the St. Louis Arch

  • William Graebner

In 1948, a unanimous jury awarded the $40,000 first prize in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Competition to a design team headed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Competitors had been charged with memorializing Thomas Jefferson, his Louisiana Purchase, and the expansion of the American nation by creating a national park and monument on the West bank of the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

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1. In the first of two stages of the competition, those submitting designs were expected to produce a “living memorial” that would represent Jefferson's “vision of greater opportunities for men of all races and creeds,” and to engage in a kind of conflict resolution: to resolve the “conflict existing between the complex needs, purposes, and obligations of those whose interests are, or will be affected by the Memorial development.” In the second stage of the competition, the idea of the “living memorial,” with its connotation of usefulness and involvement in community affairs, was eliminated, and the architectural memorial, now denned as “essentially non-functional,” was upgraded in relative importance (see “Competition: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial,” Progressive Architecture [05 1948]: 5152; and “Jefferson Memorial Competition Winners,” Architectural Record 103 [04 1948]: 9293). The best overview of the history of the arch is McCue, George, “The Arch: An Appreciation,” American Institute of Architects Journal 67 (1978): 5763. Eero Saarinen's career is outlined in Eero Saarinen on His Work, ed. Saarinen, Aline B. (1962; rept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).

2. The arch was often referred to as a parabola and as catenary (the curve described by a cord suspended from fixed points at the ends). In reality, it was somewhere in-between.

3. Excerpts from the “Report of the Jury” are printed in “Jefferson Memorial Competition Winners,” pp. 9395.

4. “Spirit of St. Louis?” Time 51 (03 1, 1948): 43; “Arch of St. Louis,” Newsweek 31 (03 1, 1948): 73; and Current Biography, 1949, Eero Saarinen entry, p. 542 (New York Times quotation).

5. Letter from Clarke, Gilmore D. to Wurster, William W., 02 24, 1948, Eero Saarinen Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (ESJNEM), accession no. G-22, Cranbrook Archives, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, box 1, original in Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Archives, St. Louis.

6. Clipping, , “St. Louis Arch Likened to '42 Mussolini Plan,” New York Herald Tribune, 02 26, 1948, IN ESJNEM, Accession no. G-22, box 1; and “Arch Argument,” Life 24 (03 8, 1948): 113.

7. Letter from Sereni and Herzfeld, attorneys-at-law, to Eero Saarinen, June 24, 1948, ESJNEM, accession no. G-22, box 1.

8. See note 6 (New York Herald Tribune).

9. “Statement by the Jury of Award on the Winning Design in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Competition,” Exhibit B, ESJNEM, accession no. G-22, box 1.

10. Clipping, , New York Herald Tribune, cited in note 6; and clipping, Zakarian, John J., “Arch of Triumph, U.S. Style,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, 12 24, 1972, pp. 4, 7.

11. Statement of January, 1959, quoted in Eero Saarinen on His Work, p. 22.

12. According to the Cranbrook Art Academy Library Accession Books, the library stopped subscribing to Architettura in 1927 (Accession Books, Cranbrook Art Academy Library, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan).

13. Temko, Allan, Eero Saarinen (New York: George Braziller, 1962), p. 16; letter from Eero Saarinen to Astrid Sampe (1949), Eero Saarinen Manuscripts, Correspondence to Astrid Sampe, accession no. G-9, in Cranbrook Archives, box 1.

14. “Arch Argument,” p. 113.

15. Teague, Walter Dorwin, Design This Day: The Technique of Order in the Machine Age (1940; rept. rev. ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 6. On film noir, see Telotte, J. P., Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

16. Holden, Arthur C., “New Uses; New Forms,” in Building for Modern Man: A Symposium, ed. Creighton, Thomas H. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), p. 8; Gropius, Walter, Scope of Total Architecture (New York: Harper, 1943), p. 182; Saarinen, Eliel, The City: Its Growth. Its Decay. Its Future (New York: Reinhold, 1943), pp. 143–44; and Temko, Allan, Eero Saarinen (New York: George Braziller, 1962), p. 14.

17. Saarinen, , City, p. 144; and Mumford, Lewis, “Municipal Functions and Civic Art,” in From the Ground Up: Observations on Contemporary Architecture, Housing, Highway Building, and Civic Design (New York: Harcourt, Brace, n.d. [ca. 1956]), p. 140. Mumford's original essay was published in the New Yorker magazine in 1953.

18. Saarinen, , City, p. xi; and Cederna, Antonio, Mussolini Urbanista: Lo Sventramento di Roma negli anni del consenso [Mussolini Urbanist: The Demolition of Rome in the Years of the Consensus] (Rome: Laterza, 1980), p. ix.

19. Cederna, , Mussolini Urbanista, p. ix. The fascists also feared the concentration of workers — the element of the population most resistant to fascist ideology — in the central cities and resolutely tore down their quarters in order to diffuse and decentralize the working-class population. In Italian urban areas undergoing redevelopment, new buildings were often placed in purposeful isolation, and great monuments were strategically located to call attention to the lines dividing the quartiere of one social class from that of another (see Mioni, Alberto, ed., Urbanistica Fascista: Ricerche e saggi sulle cittd e il territorio e sulle politiche urbane in Italia tra le due guerre [Fascist Town Planning: Research and Essays on the Cities and the Territory and on Urban Politics in Italy Between the Two Wars] 2d ed. [Milan: Franco Angeli, 1986], pp. 26, 32, 36 41–42).

20. Saarinen, , City, p. 148.

21. Hamlin, Talbot, ed., Forms and functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture, 4 vols., vol. 2, The Principles of Composition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), pp. 110–11; Mundt, Ernest, Art, Form, and Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952), p. v; and Gropius, , Scope of Total Architecture, p. 182. See also Teague, , Design This Day, pp. 235, 237, 241. The most important expression of these ideas in a political vein is Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949; rept. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). On gestalt psychology, see Arnheim, Rudolf, “The Gestalt Theory of Expression,” reprinted in Documents of Gestalt Psychology, ed. Henle, Mary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), pp. 316–17. On the ideology of unity in the international realm, see Willkie, Wendell L., One World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1943).

22. Howe, George, “Flowing Space: The Concept of Our Time,” in Creighton, , Building for Modern Man, pp. 165, 166. Campbell, Joseph's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) became the basis for a television series some forty years after its initial publication.

23. Quoted in Lane, Barbara Miller, Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918–1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 89.

24. Gropius, Walter, “In Search of a Common Denominator,” in Creighton, , Building for Modern Man, p. 170.

25. Raskin, Eugene, Architecturally Speaking (n.p.: Reinhold, 1954), pp. 41, 43; and Hamlin, , Principles of Composition, chapter on “Scale,” pp. 101, 104.

26. Hamlin, , Principles of Composition, pp. 110–11; and Gropius, , “Common Denominator,” in Creighton, , Building for Modern Man, p. 170.

27. Saarinen, Eero, “A Tour Through the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial,” ESJNEM, accession no. G-22, box 1, folder 1.

28. See the drawings for the Saarinen entry in “Competition,” pp. 5159. The photograph is View of unfinished Arch from Old Courthouse (ca. 09 1965), Prints, Slides and Photographs Collection, Ted Rennison Collection, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Archives, St. Louis, box 9, page 2; and Saarinen comment at Dickinson College, December 1, 1959, in Eero Saarinen on His Work, p. 5. For Saarinen's view of the gothic cathedral, see Temko, , Eero Saarinen, p. 16.

29. Mundt, , Art, Form, and Civilization, pp. v, 45, 170; and Hudnut, Joseph, “Architectural Values,” in Creighton, , Building for Modern Man, p. 94. For other examples of the argument for emotion, see Creighton, , Building for Modern Man, p. ix; Hamlin, Talbot, Architecture: An Art for All Men (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), p. 255; and Teague, , Design This Day, pp. 185–86, 189. For a compelling indictment of the excesses of rationalism, see Hitchcock, Alfred's film Rope (1950). On the emotions as a bridge to consensus, see Walter, Ralph, “Concepts of Space and Form,” in Creighton, , Building for Modern Man, pp. 80, 77.

30. Eero Saarinen on His Work, p. 6; see also p. 10.

31. James Agee provided an odd sort of confirmation for this view in “Dedication Day,” a brief piece he wrote in 1945 that describes the dedication of a “fused uranium” arch in Washington, D.C., designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (a representative of architectural rationalism) and commemorating the atomic bomb (see Boyer, Paul, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age [New York: Pantheon, 1985], p. 243).

32. Letter from Eero Saarinen to Astrid Sampe, n.d. (letter 9), Eero Saarinen Manuscripts, accession no. G-9, Correspondence to Astrid Sampe, box 1, file 2, Cranbrook Archives; and letter from Eero Saarinen to Astrid Sampe, November 21, 1952 (letter 2), in Correspondence to Sampe, box 1, file 5.

33. Teague, , Design This Day, p. 13 (emotional impact); and Diggins, John P., Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 445–47, 457 (“mechanistic temper”).

34. Conversation with Peter Papademetriou, Buffalo, New York, March 9, 1990; and letter from Eero Saarinen to Astrid Saxnpe, November 21, 1952, Saarinen Manuscripts, accession no. G-9, box 1, file 5, Cranbrook Archives.

35. Segre, Claudio, Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. xiii (“authentic fascist”), xii, 177 (“pride in being Italian”), 215, 231. I am grateful to Prof. Andrew Lyttleton of the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies for drawing my attention to the existence of the Balbo arch.

36. Segre, , Italo Balbo, p. 257 (“patria”); and Balbo, Italo, La Centuria Alata ([Milan]: A. Mondatori, 1934), p. 381.

37. Segrè, , Italo Balbo, p. 295; Ugo Ojetti (Tantalo), Cose Viste [Things Seen], 19341938, vol. 7 (Milan: A. Mondadori, 1939), p. 163; and Italia: Meridionale e Insulare-Libia [Italy: Southern and Insular Libya] (Milan: Consociazione Turistica Italiana, 1940), p. 413.

38. Moore, Martin, Fourth Shore: Italy's Mass Colonization of Libya (London: Routledge, 1940), p. 208 (“without hesitation”); and Wulfing, Walter, Libia! (Bologna: Capelli, 1943), pp. 139–40.

39. Fausto, Florestano Di, “Visione Mediterranea della Mia Architettura” [The Mediterranean Vision of My Architecture], Libia 1 (12 1937): 1819.

40. Segrè, , Italo Balbo, pp. 15 (“astounded”), 309; and Ojetti, , Cose Viste, vol. 7, p. 164.

41. Ojetti, , Cose Viste, vol. 7, pp. 164–65, 167.

42. On ritual and ceremony, see Kertzer, David I., Ritual, Politics, and Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

43. “Arae Philaenorum,” Libia: Rassegna Mensile Illustrate [Libya: Illustrated Monthly Review] 1 (03 1937): 1011. This journal is available at the Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna, Italy.

44. For the spotlighted arch, see “Competition,” p. 59. For the most famous imaginative reconstruction of American manifest destiny, see John Gast's painting Westward the Course of Empire, Harry T. Peters Collection, Library of Congress.

45. Address of George B. Hartzog, Jr., Superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, June 5, 1961 (italics mine); “The Jefferson Memorial: A Compendium of Relative [sic] Facts to Date,” 07 15, 1949; and Saarinen, , “A Tour Through the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial,” n.d., all in Eero Saarinen Manuscripts, accession no. G-22, Cranbrook Academy Archives, box 1, folder 1, originals in Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Archives.

46. We do not know how much Saarinen knew of the planning for the exposition, or of the arch that was to be its centerpiece. A preliminary report on the exposition, richly illustrated and in English, was printed in the December, 1938 issue of Architettura, a worldly journal whose articles on the 1939 New York World's Fair, Polish architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, and, especially, the new Italian cities, were likely to be of interest to Saarinen (see “L'Esposizione Universale Di Roma, 1942” [Rome Universal Exposition, 1942], special issue of Architettura 17 [12 1938]).

47. “L'Esposizione Universale,” p. 723; and Mariani, Riccardo, E42: Un Progetto per l'“Ordine Nuovo” [E42: A Project for the New Order] (Milan: Edizioni Comunita, 1987), p. 7.

48. Mariani, , E42, pp. 14, 17, 21 (quotations).

49. Mariani, , E42, pp. 32 (Mussolini quotation), 31, 81; and Architettura 17, p. 821.

50. Mariani, , E42, pp. 79, 144.

51. Mariani, , E42.

52. An examination of several years of Architettura for the late 1930s and early 1940s revealed only one example of the use of a parabolic arch (see “Giuseppe Capponi, Architetto,” Architettura 17 [1939], design for a covered market at Pavia).

53. Author's photographs.

54. Notebook, Cassa Di Risparmio di Ravenna [Ravenna Savings Bank] (1937), in author's possession; and Tempo di Uomini, Tempo Di Vivere: I Manifesti Piu Belli dei Magnifici Anni Trenta [A Time for Men, a Time for Living: The Most Beautiful Posters of the Magnificent 1930s] (Rome: Ciarrapico Editore, 1983), illustrations 3, 4, 5, 20, 32, 37.

55. Libia, 2 (05 1938), hotel advertisement (unpaginated); Tempo di Uomini, Tempo di Morire: Manifesti della Guerra Italiana, 1940–1945 [A Time for Men, a Time for Dying: Posters of the Italian War, 1940–1945] (Rome: Ciarrapico Editore, 1977), poster for Rome 1942 Universal Exposition (unpaginated).

56. Graebner, William, The Engineering of Consent: Democracy and Authority in Twentieth-Century America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 98149.

57. Luce, Henry R., The American Century (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1941). When the United States took the first major step in the construction of the new American empire — the 1947 Marshall Plan — its team of propaganda experts used a stone arch as a marketing device. The European Recovery Plan arch appears on an Italian postcard, in the author's possession. On Marshall Plan propaganda, see Ellwood, David W.'s essay in Ellwood, David, ed., The Marshall Plan Forty Years After: Lessons for the International System Today (Bologna: Bologna Center of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, 1988), pp. 3339.

58. Nations and peoples confronted the additional trauma of depression in 1929 with very similar kinds of responses. As John Garraty demonstrated in a 1973 essay, New Deal and Nazi policies toward unemployment, industrial recovery, agriculture and the farmer, and other aspects of the worldwide Great Depression were remarkably alike (see Garraty, John A., “The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression,” American Historical Review 78 [10 1973]: 907–44).

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