A Brief History of the Arch Part V: Luther Ely Smith

It was Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president, the one who set in motion the movement to memorialize our founding fathers. When it came to Jefferson, he consulted with Luther Ely Smith, a Saint Louis attorney, to come up with ideas on how best to honor the third president. Smith was named head of a commission that would supervise the construction of a Jefferson Memorial in Indiana in the 1920’s. Sitting on a train on his way back from Indiana, Smith decided that the Saint Louis riverfront would be the ideal location for another memorial. That’s right: the monument that is now in the Tidal Basin in DC was supposed to be right where the Arch sits now.

Smith and Coolidge had met at Amherst College while they were both undergrads (Coolidge was a year ahead of Smith). Of note: Harlan Stone (Future Supreme Court Chief Justice) and Dwight Morrow (Politician and Lindbergh’s father-in-law) also were Smith’s classmates. After graduation, Smith studied law at Washington University, volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War (an abusive exercise that only lasted a few months), and settled downtown to practice.

Smith became very successful. He had an excellent reputation as an attorney and civic leader. After WW I (For which he also volunteered) he established a series of pageants at Forest Park that evolved into the Municipal Opera, or Muni. He was appointed head of the City Planning Commission in 1916; he was instrumental in hiring the first full-time city planning commissioner in the country. Under his leadership money was raised to develop and build the City Civil Courts building and Kiel Auditorium.

So Coolidge was not just promoting an old friend. Smith had a well-established track record as someone who got things done. But national politics had a completely grander dimension. There was little interest in Washington to spend money on memorials. Coolidge, despite the fact that he had done an excellent job in a difficult situation as president, decided not to run in 1928. Hoover was elected, and the Great Depression followed soon afterwards.

When Roosevelt assumed office, interest in building monuments was rekindled. In 1934 Smith was able to talk Mayor Bernard Dickmann into establishing the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association. A bond issue for $7.5 million was approved by Saint Louis voters in September of 1935. In December of 1935 President Roosevelt signed an executive order that authorized the Department of the Interior to proceed with land acquisition and Memorial planning.

Ninety acres (40 blocks) of buildings in the heart of downtown had to be purchased and cleared. In those days none of the structures were deemed to be of historical value, and many of them were lying in disuse. Still: there was considerable opposition to what some people saw as a federal land grab, and the $30 million estimated price tag scared many others, particularly since it was not clear what the cost to our city would be.

In the end the federal government did grab the land. They acquired it by a process of condemnation. There were numerous lawsuits and many complaints of unfair treatment. People had to sell at the government’s price whether they liked it or not. On the other hand, I have read estimates that say that on the average owners got 130% of the appraised value of their buildings. Of course we’ll never reach 100% agreement on whether this was true.

By 1942 the land had been cleared. Of course the country was in the middle of a rather massive conflict at that time. Smith kept busy, despite his 68 years. In 1941 he developed a plan for Missouri to appoint judges based on merit and not partisanship. Throughout WW II he thought of the Jefferson Memorial. By then DC had erected its own Jefferson Memorial in 1939. We also had the building which now houses the History Museum, which was built with profits generated by the 1904 World’s Fair. It was also erected as a memorial to Jefferson. Smith was undaunted.

In 1946 Smith decided that there should be a contest to decide on which design would be best for the Memorial. In order to attract the best architectural minds, he proposed that a prize of $225,000 should be awarded to the winning entry (Four runners-up did receive $10,000 in prize money). When asked what he had in mind for the site, Smith said: “a central figure, a shaft, a building, an arch, or something which would symbolize American culture and civilization.” Prescient words there. Smith had to come up with $40,000 of his own money to reach the contest’s goal; eventually he was reimbursed for a bit more than half of that.

The contest began in 1947. There would be two stages; more than 100 entrants were narrowed down to five, which then went on to Round Two. In early 1948 Eero Saarinen’s design was unanimously chosen as the winner.

“It was your design, your marvelous conception, your brilliant forecast into the future, that has made the realization of the dream possible – a dream that you and the wonderful genius at your command and the able assistance of your associates are going to achieve far beyond the remotest possibility that we had dared visualize in the beginning.” These were Smith’s words to Saarinen in 1948. Due to delays in funding and decisions that had to be made as to where to put the railroad tracks, the Arch’s foundation was not laid until 1961. Smith died in 1951, not even close to seeing his dream come true.

Today Luther Ely Smith Park, located between the Old Courthouse and the Arch, serves as a fitting memorial to this giant of a man. A brilliant, visionary, determined soul who gave us one of the most, if not the most easily recognized man-made monument in the world.

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  1. Cordell Webb

    Great history Dr. Garriga. What a visionary was Luther Ely Smith. Thank you for writing and posting this. I forward your writings on to my daughter.

  2. Betty Townsend

    Wow! I have never heard of Luther Smith. This goes to show just what determination can bring about. To bad He didn’t live to see it come true. Thanks for all you study.