Lost and Found: The Case of the Arch Planning Fiasco

The Thomas Jefferson Expansion Memorial started as a plan for urban renewal in an area of dilapidated riverfront land, and was quickly lauded as a preservationist’s dream. Original efforts to create a space that exemplified the historic narrative of the flag ceremony that finalized the terms of the Louisiana Purchase worked in tandem with the local government and public to re-formulate this parcel of land into a useful and productive part of the city. Planners quickly realized, however, that there was more to the site than is connection to Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. It had a complex history that touched on the civil and communal functions of the city, with great examples of the city’s architectural history.

Plans to create a monumental open space that symbolized the country’s western expansion were slowed by arguments between the general public and the parks service over what structures on the land were considered to be worth saving. Many of these structures had links to the city’s architectural history, but their placement did not align with the Memorial’s function, and would have been expensive to preserve. Charles Peterson, the senior landscape architect for the park’s plan, proposed the creation of an American Architecture museum founded on the principles that Thomas Jefferson believed to be critical to every man’s education. The compromise created between the park service and the public over many of the cases of demolition of historic structures was to save important elements or entire facades of the structure to be later put into this museum.

But the museum did not end up having relevance in the plan for the Expansion Memorial, and other locations for its site were not explored. Building elements continued to be collected before demolition and were placed in growing storage spaces where the pieces were stolen or became broken-down. In the case of the Old Rock House, which was saved from demolition, by the time a decision was made to reconstruct the structure on another site, less than 10% of the original fabric remained, the rest lost to looting and decay. (Source: Hoppe, “Whatever Happened to the Old Rock House?”)

Now the question is, if an American Architecture museum was never built, what happened to all of the architectural materials that were saved from demolition? No clear records remain, but many elements seemed to have found their ways into the hands of private collectors. St. Louis collector Larry Giles holds the façade of the St. Louis Tile Company and many pieces that were taken from other demolished city structures. His private collection and pieces from other architectural collectors can now be seen at the National Building Arts Center, located on the outskirts of St. Louis in the preserved Sterling Steel Casting Company foundry building. Following the ideals and plans of Charles Peterson, the National Building Arts Center’s mission is to provide an understanding of the built environment through architectural artifacts, many of which came from the demolitions that paved the way for the construction of the Gateway Arch. (Source: nationalbuildingarts.org)

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