Materials and Techniques

The Construction of the Arch

By J.E.N. Jensen, Associate Director, National Park Service 1967-1972. Washington, D.C.

The old St. Louis riverfront was selected in 1935 as the site of a national monument to commemorate the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. An area of some 40 city blocks was purchased and all buildings were cleared, but because of World War II, further progress on the Memorial was halted.

In 1947 the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association, a group of public-spirited citizens, held a nationwide competition to obtain an appropriate design for the Memorial. The winner in the competition was the late Eero Saarinen, whose design was dominated by the now famous Gateway Arch.

The Memorial includes, in addition to the Arch, an underground visitor center located directly beneath the Arch. The center contains the Museum of Westward Expansion, which tells the century-long story of the opening of the West in the 1800s, as well as theaters with movies on westward expansion and the Arch's construction.

Magnificent in its concept, majestic in its setting, unique in its execution, the Gateway Arch towers 630 feet above the banks of the Mississippi River, a part of the $30 million Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The smooth, graceful lines of the Arch, designed by Eero Saarinen, also serve as one of three firsts in the history of engineering in this country, all in the City of St. Louis.

Historic Eads Bridge, the first tubular steel arch structure of its kind, completed in 1874, forms the northern boundary of the Memorial. At the southern boundary stands the steel plate girder bridge designed by Sverdrup and Parcel - the first U.S. bridge of this size to employ orthotropic design. The Gateway Arch, in neighborly spirit, borrows the arch concept from Captain Eads and makes use of the new concept of stress analysis and structural design from Sverdrup and Parcel.

Eero Saarinen, in designing the Arch, conceived of it in stainless steel, and asked Fred Severud to study its feasibility from the structural engineering point of view, again demonstrating the need for joining the skills of more than one discipline in order to create a project of this magnitude.

The stainless-steel-faced Arch spans 630 feet between the outer faces of its triangular legs at ground level, and its top soars 630 feet into the sky. It takes the shape of an inverted catenary curve; a shape such as would be formed by a heavy chain hanging freely between two supports.

Each leg is an equilateral triangle with sides 54 feet long at ground level, tapering to 17 feet at the top. The legs have double walls of steel 3 feet apart at ground level and 7-3/4 inches apart above the 400-foot level. Up to the 300-foot mark the space between the walls is filled with reinforced concrete. Beyond that point steel stiffeners are used.

The double-walled, triangular sections were placed one on top of another and then welded inside and out to build the legs of the Arch. Sections ranged in height from 12 feet at the base to 8 feet for the two keystone sections. The complex engineering design and construction is completely hidden from view. All that can be seen is its sparkling stainless steel outside skin and inner skin of carbon steel, which combine to carry the gravity and wind loads to the ground. The Arch has no real structural skeleton. Its inner and outer steel skins, joined to form a composite structure, give it its strength and permanence.

Entrance to the Arch is from the underground George B. Hartzog, Jr. Visitor Center, located directly beneath it. Visitors are carried from the lobby level below to the observation platform at the top of the Arch by a unique conveyance system - a 40-passenger train made up of eight five-passenger capsules in each leg. Operating at the rate of 340 feet per min., the ride takes 10 minutes for the round trip. The observation platform is 65 feet by 7 feet, with plate-glass windows providing views in the east and west directions. There is also a conventional maintenance elevator in each leg as far as the 372-foot level, and stairways with 1,076 steps in each leg rise from the base to the top of the Arch. The elevators and stairways are for maintenance and emergency use only.


Last updated: January 25, 2022

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