The Gateway Arch visitor center is still crawling with construction workers, but its 46,000-square-foot expansion is close enough to being finished that officials were willing to give reporters and photographers a peek Thursday.
The underground facility will open to the public in July, said Ryan McClure, director of communications for the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, one of the project partners.
Wearing a hardhat and fluorescent vest, he stood at the new main entrance, which faces west. A wall of windows looks out on the Old St. Louis County Courthouse and city skyline, past a sunken plaza with a circular pool and fountain.
“It’s worth noting that this is a view you’ve never had from the Arch visitors center,” McClure said. The current entrances are hidden at the north and south legs of the 630-foot-tall, stainless-steel monument, providing no views or natural light.
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Another big change is that people will be able to enter the lobby of the new 150,000-square-foot visitor center, buy tram tickets and use the bathroom without going through security.
The lobby will open into a mezzanine with a giant terrazzo floor map of North America, its rivers and pioneer trails. Videos on giant screens will tell the story of the westward expansion, which the Arch celebrates.
The new museum will include interpretive “hubs” on Colonial St. Louis, Jefferson’s Vision, Manifest Destiny, The Riverfront Era and New Frontiers. For the first time, there will be a display on Building the Gateway Arch in the 1960s.
“The former museum never really highlighted that story, and everybody wanted to know the details,” said Rhonda Schier, chief of museum services for Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, where the Arch is located.
The new visitor center is part of a $380 million project, known as CityArchRiver, which included demolishing the Arch parking garage, replacing it with a natural amphitheater and discovery garden and elevating flood-prone Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard along the Mississippi riverfront.
Another major component was redevelopment of Luther Ely Smith Square in front of the Old Courthouse and construction of a land bridge over Interstate 44, connecting downtown St. Louis to the Arch grounds.
“I think (people are) going to have the ‘wow’ factor from the second they realize they’re going to walk across Luther Ely Smith Square over the highway and get direct access to the museum entrance,” Schier said.
As a National Park Service employee, her favorite part of the project is that nature plays a bigger role on the Arch grounds, making the urban setting more parklike. She also likes the museum’s new interactive features.
Museum admission will continue to be free, and tram fees ($13 for adults 16 and older and $10 for children 3 to 15) will remain the same, McClure said. The new visitor center will have a cafe, a classroom for students on field trips and a gift shop. The latter already is open.
Now that the Arch parking garage has been demolished, visitors will need to find their own parking in downtown St. Louis. McClure doesn’t see this as a problem.
“Within a five-minute walk from the entrance, there are 2,600 vacant spaces on a normal day,” he said. “So that’s more than enough to service Arch visitors. That doesn’t even include street parking. That’s all parking lots and garages.”
Redevelopment of the Arch grounds began in 2013, and the amphitheater opened in 2016. Arch tram rides have continued throughout visitor center construction, but the museum has been closed since February 2015.
On Thursday, several people who work in downtown St. Louis were enjoying the nice weather by strolling the Arch grounds or relaxing on benches during their lunch hours.
“I’m excited about the new museum, just because they’re spending a lot of time and money on it, so it should be nicer than it was before,” said Mike Forney, of Webster Groves, Missouri, who works in the Peabody Energy accounting department.
Forney enjoyed concerts at the new amphitheater this summer, but he was disappointed to see all the mature shade trees cut down and replaced with saplings. Officials said the former were ash trees damaged by a beetle infestation.
Meredith Toler, 42, of Maryland Heights, Missouri, an accountant who works on Laclede’s Landing, was happy to see the Arch garage demolished to make way for more green space.
Kathleen Craig, 47, of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, a social worker in downtown St. Louis, called the new Arch grounds “beautiful.” On Thursday, she was taking a walk with two co-workers.
“Last time I was here, I brought my family, and it was hard to get the tickets, and you had to walk a long way to get to (the Arch),” she said. “Now it’s better. I love the project. I can’t wait for the museum to open and for it all to be done.”