A Case of Mistaken Identity

A glass of sparkling champagne in the upward f...
Break out the bubbly…there must be some reason to celebrate!

On September 27, 1947, a telegram arrived at the home of Finnish American Architect Eliel Saarinen announcing that he had been chosen as one of five finalists in the design competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A successful and well-respected architect already, Eliel probably seemed like a logical choice and this was no doubt a sweet moment for him. Upon receiving the telegram, the family broke out a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Spirits were indeed high in the Saarinen household. Then about two hours later a competition official called to explain that a mistake had been made. Eliel’s design had not been selected among the five finalists. That honor had gone, instead, to his 37-year-old son, budding architect Eero Saarinen.

Upon receiving the news, Eliel swallowed any disappointment he might have felt and broke out another bottle of champagne to toast to his son’s success. A few months later the selection committee chose for the memorial Eero’s design, his first major project without his father’s assistance.

And I have to assume that Eliel was (despite any expletives that undoubtedly leapt to his mind at some point) incredibly proud of his son who was following so successfully in his footsteps. Eero Saarinen would go on to design such major projects as Washington Dulles International Airport, the US Embassy buildings in London and Oslo, the TWA flight center at JFK Airport, and many, many others. But it all started with that simple arch that gives the relatively small city of St. Louis, Missouri one of the most recognizable skylines in the world.

St. Louis on the Mississippi river by night. J...
It really does just seem right.

With his design, Eero Saarinen set out not only to commemorate Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the beginning of national westward expansion, but also to mark his own time with a wholly unique structural form. In his own words, “at the edge of the Mississippi River, a great arch…seemed right.”

He’s not entirely wrong. Growing up within a couple hour radius of St. Louis and now returning to the area as an adult, I agree that something about the Arch just seems right. One can look up at it and almost imagine Lewis and Clark pulling out a pair of comically oversized scissors and snipping an expansive red ribbon before marching through the world’s largest croquet wicket to begin their westward journey.

But Eero Saarinen misspoke, too, because the Gateway to the West is not, in fact, an arch at all. As many know-it-alls can tell you, the Arch is actually a modified inverted catenary curve. In case you don’t remember everything you learned in high school trig class (though I’m sure you do), a catenary curve is the shape made when a chain is suspended from two points and allowed to hang freely. It looks a little like a parabola (but it’s not) and if you turn it upside down and modify it to have thicker bases and a narrower top, then you have the shape of the St. Louis “Arch.”

Of course this only matters to a handful of know-it-alls. One of those happens to be my dad who worked for many years as everyone’s favorite high school geometry and trigonometry teacher. Go ahead and ask me the definition of a function (just be warned that I’ll have to sing it to you to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”).

As it turns out, it also mattered to the first boy I ever brought home from college to meet my parents. Somehow the subject of the Arch came up in conversation and my relatively new know-it-all boyfriend said, “Well, of course, really it should be called the Gateway Inverted Catenary Curve.” It seems the boyfriend knew his audience. I’m pretty sure he would have eventually impressed my dad anyway (this know-it-all boyfriend is now my know-it-all husband and the two of them get along splendidly), but there’s little doubt in my mind that it was love at first catenary curve.

This was also true for the committee charged with choosing the design for the Jefferson Memorial. The vote was unanimous in favor of Eero Saarinen’s design because it just seemed right and for most of us, whether you call it an inverted catenary curve or an arch doesn’t really matter. Just make sure you call the right architect.

Saarinen working with a model of the arch in 1957


7 thoughts on “A Case of Mistaken Identity

  1. Interesting review of the design of The Gateway Arch. It demonstrates that simplicity is the hallmark of good design.
    Another notable design you may have seen before you left Oregon is that of the Library of Mt. Angel Abbey, designed by another Finn, Alvar Aalto. Considering that world-famous architects get dozens of requests for their services every month, it was a real coup for the Abbey. I was fortunate to be able to attend the dedication ceremony in 1970. Quite a bash–Duke Ellington performed but the real star (other than the extraordinary building) was Ada Louise Huxtable, long-time architectural critic for the NYT (who passed away last year). She had taken the time to look at some of the significant architecture commissions in Portland. Her comments about the First National Bank tower were not flattering, but were certainly clever and quite funny.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sam. And thank you for considering my assertion that the Arch just feels right a “review.” Then perhaps really great architecture is that which stands up to the whimsical scrutiny of those of us with very little knowledge of design. I don’t know. I just know what I like when I see it. Unfortunately I did not see the Library of Mt. Angel Abbey. I will have to visit Oregon again with the long list of all the things I didn’t see before I left.

  2. Pingback: A little bit of Americana… | Not So Distant Past

    1. St. Louis proper had a population of a little over 300,000 in 2010 census, but you’re right, the metro area isn’t exactly small. I suppose it depends on your perspective. St. Louis does not even make the list of the top 100 most populous cities in the world. I live here, so I guess I like to think of it as being a smaller place. You’re welcome to think of it as large if you like.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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