Jefferson National Expansion Memorial St. Louis, Mo. Visited: July 28, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 68 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? A handful of structures in downtown St. Louis dedicated to preserving the legacy of American westward expansion. Most notable among these structures is the 630-foot high Gateway Arch.
BEAUTY (7/10) The Gateway Arch is stunning. We could not take our eyes off it from our approach on Interstate 64 to our departure two days later to the south. The Arch beckons the traveler to pass through its doorway and head west. While in its shadow, the Arch’s shape seems to warp into impossible angles while its peak reaches unattainable heights. Eero Saarinen’s graceful creation deserves its spot among the pantheon of American landmarks.
If we had not ventured into the Arch’s underground museum, our score would have been a 9 or a 10. From the outside, the Arch challenges the imagination and inspires the tourist. From the inside, it frustrates and annoys. We were immediately struck by the stench, confused by the poor layout and dreary from its dark colors.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10) The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM) represents America’s push westward and the vision of our 3rd president.
CROWDS (2/10) Too many people in a poor use of space. The situation underground was manic, loud, smelly and vexing. We did not purchase a ticket to ride the elevator to the top of the Arch. Severe claustrophobia was the deterrent. If we had, we would have stood in line for at least a half hour. People inside did not seem happy. They shared our bewilderment and reluctant obligation. As the Midwest’s most famous attraction, we do not think the crowd ever abates.
Outside was another story. People sun-bathed, tossed footballs and had fun on the grassy lawn.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) The Site’s central location and accessible paths wage battle with an impenetrable Museum, large crowds and burnt out, hard-worked Rangers.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Exterior assumptions are deceiving at the JNEM. This score should be a 5. There are two bookstores: one sells knickknacks, T-shirts and books; one is dressed like an old pioneer store and sells spices, candies and other period specific items. The modern store has a good book selection weakened only slightly by spreading itself thin. The Arch-related kitsch and the pioneer goods are cool as well. However, the low ceilings and jam-packed aisles forced us into a frenzy. We could not browse in peace and could not ask the pioneer clerks what we were looking at. Even the buckets of spices could not erase the smell of crowded sweat. Great selection, bad experience.
COSTS (1/5) The JNEM was the first Site out of nearly 100 to charge us for its Park Brochure. We paid our $0.25 but left the bookstore angry.
Below is the cost breakdown from the Site’s website:
The tram is the elevator to the Arch’s apex. We have no idea what the Riverboat is and can’t find any reference to it on the website. The Site’s $3 entry fee is collected only when you purchase a movie or tram ticket. There are also two movies shown in separate cinemas, one about the Arch’s architect and one about Lewis and Clark. We are not sure if your movie ticket is good for both. Our cost confusion factored into our hastened exit.
Parking at the Site’s lot costs $6. Local parking garages cost more.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) Rangers are everywhere, but most are hard to approach and some are surly. Upon entry, we approached the Info desk, waited a few minutes in line and then asked for a Park Brochure. An ornery, “We don’t have any, we’ve run out” was the response. Scared, but resolute, we asked for the National Parks Passport Stamp and received a curt “it’s in the bookstore.”
Behind the desk at the bookstore, we saw the supposedly spent Brochure… on sale for a quarter. Why couldn’t the Ranger have just told us it was for sale? Our second Ranger encounter was on a Museum Tour about the history of the Horse. We wandered into her just-started lecture and were met with an agitated, “are you here for the tour, you’re late.” We moved on.
To be fair, our third Ranger was very sweet and helpful. We were confused by the Museum layout and needed aid on where to start. She led us in the right direction explaining that the Museum has little direction at all, find your way, explore. She added that there was a tour starting in just a bit that helps explain the Museum’s nebulous ways. She felt our perplexity.
TOURS/CLASSES (2/10) The Museum of Westward Expansion operates on the same thesis as the arch: immerse the visitor in the idea of the West, create understanding through symbols, emotions and an absence of barriers. The rooms are open; a standard motion and pattern through the exhibits not defined. The rooms are organized vertically and horizontally. Time is horizontal, moving from 1803 in the entry point to 1900 in the museum’s rear. The western themes of explorers, farmers, soldiers, Indians, and more are represented vertically. They progress in time as you move up and back. If you move left to right, you stay in the same time period but move through themes. You are supposed to wander as you’d like. We gave it the old college try, but soon wandered out.
We respect the idea of open education but sadly acknowledge that in practice it falls short. The JNEM feels like a relic, a noble sixties experiment that sounds good but works poorly and inspires only frustration.
FUN (5/10) Yes from the outside, no from the inside.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10) It is hard not to recommend the Gateway Arch, despite its many shortcomings. It is an American icon whose glistening elegant essence represents our westward dreams. See it from the outside. Let it relax you, let it inspire you.
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