The Architectural Competition Booklet

September 28, 2018 Posted by: Jennifer Clark, Archivist
This article appeared in an expanded form in Confluence, Spring/Summer 2018

The Architectural Competition Booklet
Record Unit 104 The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association Records, JEFF-9017

Today it is hard to conceive of any monument that could represent so perfectly St. Louis’ role in westward expansion as the Gateway Arch.  The city’s skyline is so defined by the Arch that it seems impossible that any other monument could stand there.  However, when Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM) was created by executive order in 1935, no one knew what form the memorial would take.  In 1947, an architectural competition was held, financed by the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association, the nonprofit agency responsible for the early development of the memorial idea. This booklet was the way that the association conveyed the rules and details about the contest to those architectural teams interested in competing.
The competition took the world of architecture by storm due to the freedom it granted to create a landscape punctuated with museums, restaurants, galleries, historical recreations and a monumental structure of some kind.  The memorial’s prominence alongside the Mississippi River and on the St. Louis skyline, coupled with the generous prize money to be awarded, generated great excitement in the architectural community.  The competition was restricted to American citizens and attracted interest from throughout the country: current and soon to be famous architects, partners, friends and even in one case, father and son, competed against each other to create a lasting memorial.  It was the first large competition to arise after World War II.
The idea of holding an architectural competition for the memorial was announced in 1945, and the following year Luther Ely Smith, the man who originally proposed the riverfront memorial, asked George Howe to be the advisor.  Howe was a well-known Philadelphia architect who was later the Chair of the Architecture Department at Yale.  He was a modernist with strong ideas about how to create a living memorial that would best serve the public interest.
Howe went to work, recruiting the members of the jury, which consisted of seven men: S. Herbert Hare, the only landscape architect on the jury, who had studied with Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.; Fiske Kimball, the director of the Philadelphia museum of art; Louis LaBeaume, a St. Louis architect who had long been interested in the project and helped develop the program; Charles Nagel, Jr., director of the Brooklyn Museum, who would go on to direct the Saint Louis Art Museum; Roland A. Wank, the chief architect of the Tennessee Valley Authority; William W. Wurster, the dean of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Richard J. Neutra, a well-known modernist architect.  George Howe would be present for the jury’s deliberations and make comments, but would have no vote.

The jury standing on the steps of the Old Courthouse

LaBeaume created this detailed booklet for the competition to illustrate the many driving forces behind the memorial and the different needs it was intended to fulfill.  Concerns included adequate parking, the ability of the National Park Service to preserve the area as a historic site, and the strange provision that the architects create a “living memorial” to the vision of Thomas Jefferson.  The ultimate goal, in the words of the program booklet, was to “develop an historic metropolitan area to the greatest advantage of the citizenry of the world at large” and any perceived conflicts inherent in the various and disparate competition criteria were a “conflict only in the best democratic sense.  It is a conflict over means, not over ends.”
The booklet provided a general overview of the memorial, specifics about the competition and the jury, and laid out the rules for the competition and the schedule.  It included a line art image in the centerfold with a very basic view of the 90-acre memorial site, identifying the three historic structures that were to remain in situ and be included in the design - the Old Courthouse, the Old Cathedral and the Old Rock House.  The booklet also included a great deal of information, both written and visual, about the history and uses of the site that, it was hoped, would be integrated into the final designs.

Competition Booklet, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial 

The first of the required elements was a monument or monuments that would serve as a central feature of the design.  The monument could assume any shape, but originally had to have sculptural elements illustrating or symbolizing some of the following themes:
  1. Signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty
  2. The Transfer of Upper Louisiana Territory to the United States at New Orleans
  3. The Transfer of Upper Louisiana Territory to the United States in front of the Spanish Government House in Old St. Louis
  4. The Outfitting of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Old St. Louis
  5. Trapping and Fur Trading
  6. The Pioneer Movement
  7. Life and Traffic on the Mississippi
The Old Cathedral (which is an active Roman Catholic parish belonging to the Archdiocese of Saint Louis) was not to be touched.  Inclusion of the Old Courthouse without changes was mandatory.  Inclusion of the Old Rock House (as it stood, renovated by the National Park Service, which had removed elements extraneous to the 1818 fur trade warehouse) was desirable, but not mandatory.
Other than a general warning about St. Louis’ climate and the problems of maintenance, landscaping was at the discretion of the architect.  The inclusion of a campfire theater, a popular feature of many parks in the West where rangers could give programs, was encouraged.  The design needed to include a large museum, but the nature of the space for educational purposes was left to the creativity of the architect.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the program was the call for the park to include a living memorial to the vision of Thomas Jefferson.  The exact nature of this living memorial was only vaguely defined as something instructional, educational and cultural and to be contrasted with “activities as carried on in stadia, baseball parks, sports palaces, auditoria, concert halls, and other such facilities…”
Entries were to be submitted in the form of two drawings measuring approximately 36”x48.” The first drawing was to be a plan showing all the elements of the design, an elevation as would be seen from a vantage point across the Mississippi looking back at the park, and a cross section.  The second sheet could be more informal and “the Competitor is to think of himself as talking to the Jury over the drawing board, pencil, pen or brush in hand, making freehand sketches to explain and amplify any ideas, features, compositions, or details he may think especially worthy of their consideration or necessary to clarify his thought.”  
The competition was conducted anonymously in two stages to ensure that the strength of the individual designs were weighed without the influences of name recognition. The booklet described in detail the process by which the jury would select five finalists who would proceed to a second round, submitting a set of amended designs.  The sealed envelopes revealing the names of the architects that accompanied each entry were opened only after the selection of the second stage finalists.  The identity of the second stage competitors remained a secret known only to advisor George Howe and the President, the Treasurer, and the Chairman of the Competition Committee of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association.
It was the ideas and rewards laid out in this booklet that drew the interest of such luminaries as Louis Kahn, Walter Gropius, Charles and Ray Eames, Minoru Yamasaki, Edward D. Stone, and of course, Eliel and Eero Saarinen to the competition and resulted in the Gateway Arch that we know today.  Yale University Archives has preserved Eero Saarinen’s copy of this booklet, including his early sketches of arches in the margins of the text – a fascinating artifact showing that he decided upon an arch as his central feature very early in the process.

Last updated: September 28, 2018

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

11 North 4th Street
St. Louis, MO 63102


314 655-1600

Contact Us