Jefferson National Expansion
Administrative History
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Administrative History
Bob Moore

The National Park Comes Into The Grid
The Gateway Arch
The Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri. National Park Service (NPS) photo by Al Bilger.

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Administrative History, 1935-1980, by Sharon A. Brown, told the story of the creation of the memorial in 1935 and the construction of the Gateway Arch between 1963 and 1965. It did not describe in any depth, however, the inner workings of the park, the day-to-day jobs of maintaining, protecting, administering, and interpreting a major resource. It is the purpose of this administrative history, covering the period 1980-1991, to give a sense of those inner workings and how the park came to be managed in its present manner. This administrative history will also attempt to present the innovative nature of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, detailing the special programs and concepts tested in the park over the years.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is a unique place. It was the first urban National Park Service area to be created outside of Washington D.C., and the first area designated under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. [1] It was the fulfillment of the dream of St. Louis civic leaders Luther Ely Smith and Bernard Dickmann in the 1930s, and remains a progressive and shining example of the urban park ideal in the 1990s.

On approaching the central portion of the city of St. Louis from any direction, one feature stands out on the low skyline: the tallest structure in the city is a 630-foot stainless steel arch, part of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and built between 1962 and 1965, the Gateway Arch has become not only a symbol of westward expansion as intended by its creators, but also a symbol of the city of St. Louis, and ultimately a symbol of the urban park concept.

One of the unusual features of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is the amount of local support and involvement the park receives. From the beginning, one fourth of the costs of the memorial were met with City of St. Louis funds. With the reductions in federal allocations to parks in the 1980s, the level of services at the memorial would have been reduced if not for the involvement of the locally-administered Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association and the Bi-State Development Agency in its operation. Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (known within the National Park Service by the designated acronym JEFF) has been a pioneer in the urban park concept, public-private partnerships, and a host of other programs once unusual and now common in the management of national park areas. This administrative history will attempt to outline the use of innovative methods and new ideas in park administration which originated at JEFF. Some were extremely successful, while others failed; but all were important, and resulted in what is today seen by the visitor who tours the area.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial originated during the great depression as an effort to revitalize downtown St. Louis, as a jobs program for thousands of local residents seeking employment, and to commemorate the rich history of the St. Louis riverfront area. By the 1980s it provided a prime example of a park brought into the "grid" — the urban landscape. The memorial was planned in the 1935-1948 era, long after the City of St. Louis was founded in 1764, long after its tumultuous years as a river port and embarkation point for the West. It was a park engineered to fit into an existing urban environment. An afterthought as far as city planning goes, the park provided a dramatic respite from a congested inner city area, opening up the riverfront and the crowded towers of the downtown area to sunlight and spacious vistas. The park provided green space and serenity for the downtown office worker as well as for the visitor from another state or country. The park also offered a stage upon which the National Park Service message could be presented to an urban audience. History, architecture, and a created natural environment melded in this unique area to create a one-of-a-kind park experience, the first of many national park areas to open up and alter the grid of modern urban life.

A 1991 Visit to Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

As visitors walk toward the Gateway Arch, they move through a beautifully landscaped park, set upon a plain above the Mississippi River. The wind rustles the leaves of the trees which line the walks — medium-sized trees, all of the same species, Rosehill Ash. What impresses the visitor is the quiet serenity of this enclave, for it was here that the original city of St. Louis stood. The old buildings are now gone. Run-down in their final years, stained by decades of coal dust from countless chimneys, these remnants of the era of bustling river trade were superseded by rails and wings. They stood for the past, for a city ready to die.

Perhaps the trend of rehabilitating old buildings which began in the 1960s, when middle-class families began moving back into the cities (as happened in San Francisco, for instance), might have brought the St. Louis riverfront area back from the dead. [2] The point is moot, however, for by 1941 the riverfront buildings had been razed in anticipation of the memorial to westward expansion. It was the creation of that memorial, and the tourist dollars it brought to the city, which began the revitalization of downtown St. Louis. Before the Gateway Arch was built, the business center of St. Louis was in the process of shifting to the city of Clayton, ten miles to the west. Billions of dollars in development and revitalization have resulted from the creation of the Gateway Arch. [3]

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has done more than just benefit the people of St. Louis, however. Tourists from across the United States and around the world are impressed by this stainless steel catenary curve on the river. As visitors walk the grounds of the memorial, they suddenly emerge from the trees, viewing the entire sweep of the Gateway Arch at close range. The sun glints off its shining sides, providing unique color and light effects at different times of the day and different seasons of the year.

Upon approaching the Arch, visitors are impressed with its size. They crane their necks to look up at its graceful curve. People emerge from the entrance ramps at the base of the Arch, parents pointing up to the tiny observation windows near the top, telling their children that that is where they were just a few moments before. Other children, just arriving at the Arch, rush forward to run their hands down the smooth surface of the stainless steel. Adults cannot resist touching the Arch, either. It is a tactile experience shared by all. Cameras click as visitors jockey for position, trying to capture the size and scope of the Arch on film or videotape. Voices are heard, expressing wonder and disbelief as they look upon this structure. This is no mean feat, that a monument designed over forty years ago can still evoke a sense of awe in the 1990s, when a jaded population often claims that they have "seen everything."

Visitors next pass down a concrete ramp toward a set of glass doors. Besides the Arch, all that can be seen on the surface is a finely manicured, grassy lawn. As visitors walk below ground level and through the glass doors, however, they enter a cavernous open space, often crowded with people and at first confusing. After orienting themselves, they see a row of ticket windows and proceed to buy tickets for the tram ride to the top of the Arch, and perhaps for the film. They will also encounter interpretive opportunities they might not have expected below the Arch.

A museum as big as a football field, devoted to the subject of westward expansion, is hidden below the Gateway Arch along with a theater — soon to be two theaters — in which films describing the western experience and the construction of the Arch are shown daily. A huge museum shop beckons visitors in need of further interpretive information, such as a book or an educational item for themselves or a loved one.

People pack the lobby on a summer day, milling about, waiting in ticket lines or for their turn to ride the tram to the top. Others stretch out on the benches scattered about the lobby, enjoying the air conditioning, or besiege the volunteers at the information desk. The average visitor is little aware of what is going on out of his or her sight in various rooms and corridors surrounding this underground visitor center. On any given day:

A maintenance employee is walking the halls on his daily check of the air conditioning system. He listens with practiced ears for what cannot be described in words. If something is wrong with the system, if it needs adjustment, he will hear it and report it before it becomes a major problem.

A dispatcher patiently answers incoming telephone calls, knowing that this routine must be dropped if a law enforcement or medical problem arises. The dispatch office is the nerve center of the park operation, and often the scene of intense activity.

An interpreter tells a group of visitors about a full-size American Indian tipi in the museum. It is the twelfth time she has told the story this hour, but she smiles and tells it as though it is the first. She may have given a passing thought to her upcoming break, but this is not evident in the things she tells the group of interested people surrounding her.

A concessions employee prepares a mop bucket for the lobby. There is always some sort of cleaning to be done, especially since there will be 10,000 visitors today. Cleaning the lavatories and public areas is a never-ending job, one that is not noticed until something is left undone.

Exhibit specialists are planning a temporary exhibit to commemorate an upcoming anniversary of a western subject. They sit behind drafting tables sketching ideas, envisioning ways in which a temporary exhibit gallery can be changed into a "little world" for people to enter, enjoy, and experience.

Projectionists prepare a film for viewing, while thinking about the special upcoming event for which they have to shoot photographs on a copystand, provide a slide projector, video cassette player, TV monitor, and microphone/speaker system.

The crowded lobby of the Gateway Arch. NPS photo by Al Bilger.

Maintenance crews for the Arch Transportation System examine their stock of spare parts, keeping up with an intricate schedule of preventive maintenance for the Arch's one-of-a-kind tram system, which has exceeded 100,000 miles of operation.

A clerk in the park's museum shop makes another sale for a visitor, chatting amiably while using a bar-code scanner. Although the store is packed, she tries not to let the stress of dealing with so many people show through.

Ticket sales are made quickly and efficiently by several employees of the Bi-State Development Agency, within a glass-enclosed booth on the east side of the lobby. Tickets are sold for the tram ride to the top of the Arch, the Park Service entrance fee, and the film "Monument to the Dream."

Meanwhile, the administrative staff at the Old Courthouse meet to bring each other up-to-date on several ongoing projects, and to plan future strategies for improving the visitor experience in the park.

The average visitor sees the Gateway Arch, the museum, the films, and the Old Courthouse, and continues on his or her way, never giving a thought to activities which occur behind the scenes. Although the visitor makes contact with only a fraction of the staff, the park could not function without them all.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004