Buried Treasure

Expanded museum below the Gateway Arch offers a fresh look at St. Louis' history and America's expansion.

Like the tip of an iceberg, the glimmering Gateway Arch rises above the St. Louis skyline and captures your attention, but underneath, an expanded and redesigned museum looms large, telling the story of the city and America’s westward expansion like never before.

Starting with a beautiful new glass entryway that filters natural light into the museum under the monument, the world-class museum illuminates the history of St. Louis and the pioneering spirit of America with a mix of artifacts and highly interactive exhibits. Opening on July 3 just in time for Fair Saint Louis — which returns to the riverfront after four years in Forest Park — the updated museum is the final piece of a massive multi-year project that has transformed the Arch grounds, adjoining riverfront, and downtown areas.

Thought-Provoking

Completed in 1965, the 630-foot-tall Arch was built to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and the role St. Louis played in the expansion of the fledgling nation during the 19th century as pioneers headed west. In a nod to Jefferson, the national monument was first called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial but was recently renamed the Gateway Arch National Park. 

Tram rides to the top of the Arch opened in 1967, and the museum underneath opened about a decade later. Since then, however, the museum had undergone very few changes and its exhibits had not kept pace with today’s museum storytelling that is heavily dependent on technology and multimedia. 

“The vision for the modern-day museum experience is participatory, interactive, and thought-provoking,” said Rhonda Schier, chief of Museum Services and Interpretation at the Gateway Arch National Park, adding that the new museum’s exhibits accomplish all that and more.

The new experience starts at the circular entryway situated between the legs of the Arch. Approximately 70,000 cubic yards of earth were removed to make way for the new entrance and more than 45,000 square feet of additional gallery space, which augments the existing 100,000 square feet. The narrow ramps near the legs of the iconic monument that once served as entry and exit will become exits only. 

Shortly after entering, visitors overlook a terrazzo floor on the mezzanine level that features a monumental map of westward trails from St. Louis, a fitting introduction to the museum that focuses on movement — in covered wagons, on the railroad, aboard riverboats, and more.

Once inside the museum, visitors travel from the mid-1700s to the opening of the Arch. Six themed areas include innovative and interactive exhibits that trace the story of Native Americans, explorers, pioneers, and rebels who made America what it is today.

In the Colonial Area, visitors discover the indigenous and Creole culture of St. Louis before the Louisiana Purchase. A highlight is a 15-foot by 15-foot French Colonial cabin constructed with hand-hewn vertical logs. Two sides are completed and two sides are open so visitors can see how it was constructed. Nearby, a French pirogue is set against a river scene, and guests can climb in the canoe to take a selfie as if they were traveling on the river. 

The Jefferson’s Vision and Manifest Destiny sections examine the country’s belief that it had a God-given right to expand. Visitors can discover how St. Louis shaped the West and learn not only about settlers and the western trails, but about the perspective of the indigenous people whose lives were altered forever.

Visitors learn about the history of steamboats, railroads, and industrial growth in the Riverfront Era and New Frontiers galleries. Guests will be drawn to the Riverfront Levee exhibit, a five-block scale model of what downtown St. Louis looked like in 1852. Crafted from 3-D printers, the highly detailed diorama features buildings, people, livestock, cargo, and steamboats. Through extensive research, historians made sure each building in the model was the right color and had the correct number of floors.

And in the Building the Arch section, visitors will learn about the architectural competition that resulted in the engineering marvel that Eero Saarinen designed. The trip through the gallery and the entire museum merges seamlessly with the journey up into the Arch and provides a coherent context for seeing St. Louis, the Mississippi River, and the view to the West.

Beyond the Arch

While the Arch and museum are at the heart of any visit to the 90-acre national park, visitors should explore the grounds, which were renovated as part of the $380-million CityArchRiver project that began in 2010 to re-imagine the Arch and surrounding areas. 

The project began with the addition of a land bridge over Interstate 44 between the Old Courthouse and Arch grounds to better link the park with the city. In addition, roughly 11 acres of parkland were added to the site, in part through the removal of a parking garage to make way for the North Gateway that serves as a space for festivals and concerts, including the Blues at the Arch concert series. The four-week series will kick off on Aug. 3 and continues every Friday night with music, food trucks, and drink vendors. 

As guests wander the park, they’ll find 5 miles of new and renovated pedestrian pathways that provide greater access into and through the grounds, which were enhanced with new landscaping. 

The riverfront area also was improved with the addition of additional lighting, green space, and separated biking and walking paths. Visitors now have easier access to reach the Riverboats at the Gateway Arch, two replica 19th-century paddlewheel riverboats that offer sightseeing, dinner, and specialty excursions on the Mississippi River. Cruises aboard the Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer offer stunning views of the city’s skyline.

History buffs shouldn’t miss the Old Courthouse, which is part of the national park. Built in 1839, the court building is a prime example of mid-19th century Greek Revival architecture. It was here that the enslaved Dred Scott sued for his and his wife Harriet’s freedom, as well as where Virginia Minor and her husband filed suit arguing for women’s right to vote.

Nearby is Kiener Plaza, a park that also was renovated as part of the project. There’s a shade garden with café tables and chairs, benches, a fountain garden with a splash pad, paths, and a children’s play garden.

Music fans should check out the National Blues Museum (615 Washington Ave.), which celebrates this tradition-rich American musical genre. Interactive exhibits are complemented by a host of live performances at the museum.

Where to Eat and Sleep

Just steps away from the Arch and nearly in its shadow is the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch. In conjunction with the revitalization of the Arch, the hotel underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation of its 910 guest rooms and lobby area that was completed in 2017. Many rooms offer stunning views of the Arch and its grounds, and guests will find several on-site dining options, including a full-service Starbucks and the Brewhouse Historical Sports Bar. The AAA Four Diamond hotel is not only close to the monument but to other downtown attractions, including Busch Stadium and Ballpark Village.

Visitors will find a host of dining options downtown, with Tony’s topping the list of upscale eateries. At this celebrated AAA Four Diamond restaurant, diners will find linguine with lobster and shrimp, filet mignon, and beef tenderloin with foie gras. 

For a touch of New Orleans in St. Louis, try the Broadway Oyster Bar, which features live music nearly every night of the week. Menu options in this laid-back restaurant and bar include jambalaya, po’boy sandwiches, and a delicious muffuletta.

Along lively Washington Avenue that’s lined with restaurants, lofts, and bars, there are several dining choices, including Lucas Park Grille that offers cast iron seared scallops, beef short ribs, and grilled salmon. And at Rosalita’s Cantina, enjoy table-side guacamole and an array of classic Mexican dishes.

For several restaurants in one location, visit Ballpark Village. The Budweiser Brew House has a selection of burgers, pasta, sandwiches, and more, while the Drunken Fish features Asian-inspired dishes like sashimi and seafood rolls. El Birdos Cantina offers street tacos and other Tex-Mex fast-serve dishes. After you’ve eaten, check out the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum on site, which pays tribute to the rich legacy of the hometown team.

As visitors sample the city’s cuisine and discover all that’s new at the Gateway Arch, they’ll realize there’s more than meets the eye in St. Louis. 

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of AAA Midwest Traveler. 

(Top photo: The museum's new lobby looks out at the Old Courthouse, park of the Gateway Arch National Park. Photo: Gateway Arch Park Foundation)