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Before the highway cut off downtown from the river

The razing of 40 blocks of St. Louis along the riverfront began on October 10, 1939. There was no plan at that time, a design competition wasn’t held until 1947.  So St. Louis created the biggest surface parking lot on what was the original village.

ABOVE: For two decades the Arch grounds was nothing but a massive parking lot. Image: NPS

Ground breaking for construction of the Arch was held nearly 20 years later, on June 23, 1959.  For 20 years the only reason to connect with this location was to get to your car in a sea of cars.

May 2, 1961 only a boulevard separates downtown from the JNEM site. Image: NPS

Two years after the ground breaking we see that all that had changed was the reduction in the amount of land for surface parking.  By this point the city’s leaders saw this site as a wasteland, nothing we’d ever want easy pedestrian access to.

Future mayor Raymond Tucker was 43 (my current age) when the city razed these blocks.  One of his first duties as mayor would have been the ribbon cutting at the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex.  He was 68 when the depressed highway lanes created a permanent divide between the central business district and what would become the Jefferson Nation Expansion Memorial we know today.  He and others leaders at the time must have thought they were making good decisions for the future of our city.

But to them the site was simply parking.  They worked hard to get the Arch funded and built.  Tucker saw the Arch completed but not the landscaping, he died in 1970. This generation of men had experience with a very different St. Louis than us today.

Thank you to to Tom Bradley & Jennifer Clark of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial for the use of the above images.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "27 comments" on this Article:

  1. Chris says:

    That's fascinating. Are there any sources for the story behind razing the 40 blocks to begin with? That's a lot of property to buy up just for a parking lot.

    • Ideas about razing the riverfront date back to the 1904 World's Fair, it just took a lifetime to complete. Hopefully removing the highway lanes won't take as long…

  2. tomshrout says:

    Mayor Tucker was also responsible for prohibiting the streetcars from going further east than 12th street, thus hastening their demise.

    • JZ71 says:

      Because the streets were a lot narrower and the streetcars conflicted more with the growing numbers of autos? If so, it sounds like majority rules was working . . .

      • BS! It was a few that didn't think about the unintended consequences of removing the system.

      • Dennis says:

        The streetcars were never really intended to be discontinued. It was always just sort of a circumstance situation. Some lines were eliminated for street widening and other because the interstates or expresshighways cut them off. In either case it was always cheaper to just replace them with a bus line rather than relocate the tracks.

  3. Michael Powers says:

    Oddly enough, the stillness of a parking lot would have been more accommodating to strolling along the river and walking back downtown than the current highway. Thanks for the photos Steve.

  4. markgroth says:

    These photos are amazing. I can't believe this was the front doorstep of our city for 20 years! Check out the Switzer building on the Landing…man I miss that structure.

  5. moorlander says:

    photo thread: St. Louis before the arch

    Here is a photo thread of the area before the destructiong.
    ***WARNING*** have tissue ready because this is hard to look at.

    Steve, I apologize ahead of time if posting links is not allowed in the conmment section.

  6. Mary says:

    My father used to park there. He had an office in the Title Guarantee Building (7th and Chestnut) and he would walk down to the parking lot where the cars baked all day in the sun of the St. Louis summers. You would have to open the car and wait until it wasn't too hot to touch to get in and drive home.

    • JZ71 says:

      Which gets me to wondering . . . was the “loss” of all this parking the impetus that got the city into the parking-garage business? Were many of the city garages built at about the same time? And what was the thinking behind those decisions? That providing parking, here or in garages, was critical to keeping businesses downtown? (And how well did that work out?) Or was there an honest attempt to maintain density in the rest of downtown? That our leaders could “see the writing on the wall”, in that the private sector was embracing surface parking, to the detriment of many older buildings?

  7. G-Man says:

    Seeing the original site of St. Louis used as a parking lot just makes me want to punch a wall.

    Most of it is still a waste of space. Historic poteaux & terre replicas, please!

  8. Ernie Piffel says:

    You make it sound like civic leaders sat on their hands for twenty years. In fact, federal funding ebbed and flowed through the end of the Depression, WWII, and the Korean War delaying land acquisition, design, and construction. Don't let facts get in the way of your opinion.

    • The 40 blocks were cleared in 1939 after 3 decades of discussion about it. The competition was 1947. Construction began in the 60s. Landscaping wasn't finished until the early 1970s. The fact is for over 20 years the site was a destination only for parking.

      • Ernie Piffel says:

        Your implication that city leadership was to blame for a lack of vision is incorrect.

        • Yeah and it's an accurate criticism today. But City Garden, with its innovative use, brings a new day for St. Louis…

        • Never said lack of vision. My point is they probably wouldn't have cut a highway between two vibrant areas downtown. But for 20+ years the site was a wasteland waiting for their vision. It was this two decade lack of activity at the site that led to the OK of the highway.

          • JZ71 says:

            If the buildings hadn't been demolished, odds are the highway would've ended up on the levee, on piers, right along the river, like so many other cities, truly limiting access to the riverfront. So while the depressed section is depressing, it sure beats the contemporary alternative . . . .

          • moorlander says:

            Same difference in my opinion. Our riverfront is a detriment that should be an asset. There is little to do there, no where to spend money, and damn near impossible to access.
            In my opinion, what was there would be much more a tourist attraction today than even the 4 million that visit the arch. Think French quarter in NOLA.
            If only the arch were built on the east bank.

          • The French Quarter wasn't demolished as we did the Arch Grounds as well as a lot of Laclede's Landing — as well as creating a physical disconnect to the district itself through the Highway. We also have a suburban casino dead-zone between Laclede's Landing and the North Riverfront Warehouse District. And suburban/industrial dead-zones in Kosciusko south of the few remaining historic warehouses near the Dickmann Bridge. We have already destroyed too much with Lumiere, Kosciusko, the Arch Grounds, and the highways. Absent the Arch as a structure, our riverfront may never never have international recognition. We should proceed ahead with removing the highway, but we can't think we will have a waterfront as functional, place-defining, or embraced as New Orleans. I think we've done too much damage.

          • JZ71 says:

            Not exactly apples to apples. New Orleans doesn't really have a riverfront, it has levees. Their French Quarter is more analagous to our Soulard. Not to excuse the demolition that's happened here, but the geography is different. As for “we can't think we will have a waterfront as functional, place-defining, or embraced as New Orleans.” We do have a functional waterfront, when it comes to moving freight. Not as big as NO, but definitely up there. As for “place-defining or embraced”, I'd argue that we're remarkably similar. The river is there, but it's best appreciated from the bridges, in both cities. To really see cities that embrace their riverfronts, you mostly need to look upriver; the only good downriver example I can think of is Memphis. My guess is that it's a result of a combination of much less barge traffic/riverfront industrial uses and more-favorable geography/less flooding and variations in water levels.

  9. JZ71 says:

    More thoughts . . . the Arch has been both a blessing and a curse. Since it was “completed”, decades ago, efforts have been focused elsewhere in the region – restoring Forest Park, developing the loft district, building the Katy Trail, adding the runway at Lambert, etc, etc. Plus, as a federally-owned property, not a locally-owned asset, we've been limited in what we can or cannot do, as a community, to resond to changing needs and demands. In other cities, efforts to connect their downtowns with their rivers have been much more ongoing, and thus, more successful.

    The amount the river rises has a direct impact on how closely you can build to it. Most cities that have invested in the riverfronts seem to be on the high side of any locks or dam. Here, due to geography, we're on the low side, so we see greater variations in water levels.

    Similarily, what's going on, on and across the river, has a direct impact on attracting people to the riverfront. Here, we have some barge traffic and the view of the remains of East St. Louis and all its elevated freeways. Head north, to Alton and Grafton, and you see a lot more recreational traffic, a lot more trees and a narrower, more-accessible river, more like the views in Pittsburgh or Minneapolis.

    Other cities have created successful major events focused on the river (Tall Stacks in Cincinnati and Thunder over Louisville, to name two). Here, Live on the Levee is no longer even on the river, the Casino Queen has morphed from a riverboat to a warehouse, and riding to the top of the Arch is one of those “been there, done that” things that doen't inspire a lot of return visits. The new viewing platform in East St. Louis is a small step in the right direction, but quick, a show of hands, who's been there, since it's been open?!

    On the plus side, outside of downtown, we have multiple potential opportunities to improve access. directly and indirectly. Both Baden and Riverview Drive (on the north) and Carondelet and Bellerive Park (on the south) have historic ties to the river. The new River City Casino is right on the river, providing direct access from their parking lots. Historic St. Charles does a pretty good job, and Great Rivers Greenway continues their efforts.

    Yet the reality remains that our riverfront, all along our eastern city boundary, is primarily industrial and successful. We don't have marinas, we have barge terminals. Given our larger economic struggles, combined with the multiple other regional opportunities, it's probably not too surprising that there's not a huge effort to do more. Yes, we should focus on making Laclede's Landing and the area between Arch and the MacArthur Bridge into more entertainment- and residential-friendly districts, and yes, we should do a better job of connecting the Arch and downtown. The trick will be defining what actually works – just being brick and old apparently isn't enough . . .

  10. Rbspaeth says:

    Does anyone remember the Diamond Jubilee on the waterfront in the 50's

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