History Stories

In 1947 the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association launched a national design competition for a monument planned along the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis to honor Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase and the pioneers who expanded the United States westward. The first major design competition following World War II—as well as the sizable first prize of $40,000—drew some of architecture’s biggest stars, including furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, modernist Walter Gropius and Minoru Yamasaki, the future designer of the World Trade Center.

Names mattered little, however, as the conceptual drawings given to the judges were marked only with entry numbers and not the identities of the architects in order to keep the jury focused on the merits of the individual plans. Out of the 172 entries, the jury selected a soaring, stainless steel arch designed by a relative unknown. Had the jury selected any of these following design entries over the iconic Gateway Arch, however, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial would look considerably different today.

Phillips, Eng & Associates

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Final design submitted by Phillips, Eng & Associates. (Credit: National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial)

After naming five semifinalists in September 1947, the jury selected the winning design in February 1948. Coming up just short was the second-place design submitted by a trio of University of Illinois graduate students— Gordon Phillips, William Eng and George Foster. Their plan called for a series of seven pylons commemorating key historical moments in the settlement of the West along with a mass sculpture depicting the expedition of Lewis and Clark on the south end. The north end of the park featured a serpentine museum structure. Although the architecture students didn’t capture the top prize, they at least received the second-place award of $20,000.

Harris Armstrong

gateway arch, lewis & clarsk

First round design from Harris Armstrong. (Credit: National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial)

The St. Louis native submitted the only design to garner votes from all seven judges in the first round of voting. Armstrong’s original plan included educational buildings for a “graduate school for the study of and inducement toward public service”—known as the Thomas Jefferson Institute of Democratic Government—along with museums, six tall housing blocks, an orchestra shell, a circular heliport pad and an airport for small planes on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. The centerpiece of Armstrong’s plan was a pair of sharp cuts into the river’s levee in the symbolic shape of a plow. “The basic idea of the project is a dynamic sculptural use of the levee itself,” he stated on the plan. While the judges were enthusiastic about Armstrong’s design, they noted in naming it a semifinalist that the symbolic levee design only resonated from the air, and not at ground level, and would be too expensive to implement. Faced with the need to drastically overhaul his design, Armstrong returned with an uninspired sequel. Gone was the plow-shaped concrete inlet, replaced by groves of trees, a reflecting pool and a central monument that Architectural Forum called a “slab” that “looks more like an office building than a tribute to the Pioneer Spirit.” After having the highest-rated design in the first round, Armstrong ended up garnering only an honorable mention and $2,500.

Louis Kahn

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Louis Kahn’s design. (Credit: National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial)

One of America’s foremost architects of the 20th century, Louis Kahn submitted a plan that looked more like a college campus than a national monument, which makes sense since he envisioned “a laboratory of education” as a living memorial. At its core was a tower with classrooms, laboratories, libraries and even a television broadcasting studio to disseminate the institute’s research around the world. Surrounding the tower were resident dormitories and a museum interpreting the significance of westward expansion and highlighting achievements in the arts and sciences. On the east bank of the Mississippi River, Kahn envisioned playing fields, tennis courts, an arena and a stadium. Kahn’s submission was doomed, however, by his inclusion of a pedestrian promenade with a restaurant, shops, dance hall, movie theater and even a Ferris wheel that connected the two river banks since the selection committee precluded designs that included bridges across the Mississippi River.

Eliel Saarinen

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Eliel Saarinen’s final round design. (Credit: National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial)

The famed Finnish-born architect, who had settled in the United States in 1923 and ran an architecture firm with his son, submitted a plan that included a redesigned harbor and circular domed structures to house a planetarium, auditorium, studio and theater. The centerpiece of the design was a massive rectangular stone gate with four prongs in front of which were statues of Jefferson along with those of Robert Livingston and James Monroe, who both helped to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase with France. After the jury made its selection of the five semifinalists in September 1947, Saarinen received a telegram congratulating him on making the cut. Champagne corks popped at the offices of Saarinen and Saarinen & Associates as toasts were raised to the patriarch. It turned out, however, that the telegram was sent by mistake.

Eero Saarinen

One of the drawings for Eero Saarinen's winning design. (Credit:

One of the drawings for Eero Saarinen’s winning design. (Credit:

The telegram delivered to Eliel Saarinen was actually intended for his son, Eero. The mistake was perhaps understandable since the two men shared the same last name, first initial and workplace—not to mention that they were even both born on August 20. The jury, which quickly corrected the mistake once it realized what had happened, was drawn to the younger Saarinen’s proposal for a simple, yet monumental arch that embodied the idea of St. Louis as a gateway to the West. After experimenting with different forms using pipe cleaners he planted in his living room rug, Saarinen initially submitted a design for a 590-foot-high concrete arch covered in a skin of stainless steel to give it a more modern look. In his revised, final plan Saarinen increased the height of the arch to 630 feet and altered the shape of its sections from four-sided trapezoids to equilateral triangles, which resulted in a sleeker design. When the jury met in February 1948 to make its final choice, the Gateway Arch was the consensus winner on the ballots of all seven judges. With construction delayed by more than a decade by financing and site issues, Saarinen passed away in 1961 at the age of 51 without ever seeing his vision become reality.

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