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On July 3, the new museum at St. Louis' iconic Gateway Arch opened to the public, the culmination of a multi-million dollar campaign to unify the city and update one of the nation's most recognizable man-made landmarks.
The imposing 630-foot-tall concrete and stainless-steel structure towers over the St. Louis riverfront, and commemorates Thomas Jefferson and the role St. Louis played in the westward expansion of the United States.
Completed in 1965, the arch offers tram rides to a viewing platform at its top. Now, after $380 million worth of upgrades, the park land around the monument and the underground museum below it are being readied for visitors. Recently, CNBC got a preview of the upgraded ground-level Gateway Arch experience.
The new museum and visitor center will be celebrated with a ribbon cutting ceremony on July 3 as part of Fair St. Louis, a July 4th celebration dubbed "America's Biggest Birthday Party."
City officials expect attendance at Gateway Arch National Park to increase significantly once the museum and visitor center re-open. "What's more," said Brian Hall, Chief Marketing Officer, Explore St. Louis, "The improvements to the park capture the excitement and transformation our community is experiencing, including several new hotels and new tourism developments," Brian Hall, Explore St. Louis' chief marketing officer, told CNBC in an interview.
The arch has an 8-car tram ride that brings visitors (five per car) to a small observation room at the top of the structure. It remains unchanged, but the way visitors will experience the Gateway Arch Park has been transformed.
"You don't change a masterpiece," said Eric Moraczewski, executive director of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation. "What we've done is renovate about 100 acres of park space, added 46,000 square feet of museum space, a café and raised the riverfront about 30 inches to prevent flooding," he explained to CNBC recently. "We also built a land bridge over Interstate 44 to make the park more accessible to visitors."
When the free museum inside the Gateway Arch reopens on July 3, visitors will see some old favorites, such as the statue of Thomas Jefferson. There are also new artifacts, including a resin version of a much-loved taxidermy buffalo that was showing too much wear and tear.
The new museum has six galleries, including "Colonial St. Louis," explores the founding of St. Louis and the indigenous and Creole culture before the Louisiana Purchase; "Jefferson's Vision," which documents how St. Louis shaped the West; and "Manifest Destiny," which follows the trails, the settlers and the conflicts for those heading west.
Galleries like "The Riverfront Era" and New Frontiers" illustrate the history of steamboats, railroads and other industrial western powerhouse industries.
The "Riverfront Era" gallery features a façade made with stones from the Old Rock House, a structure built as a warehouse in 1818 that was demolished to make way for the construction of the arch.
"The history preservation team for National Park Service kept the stones, carefully stored them and was able to reuse them. Now you walk into the museum through the stones of the Old Rock House," said Moraczewski.
The Riverfront Levee exhibit will be a 5-block scale model of what the downtown St. Louis Mississippi riverfront looked like in 1852. It will include a diorama depicting buildings, people, livestock, cargo and steamboats.
"Park historians did a lot of research for this gallery," said Moraczewski told CNBC. "They did things like pull insurance records to make sure each building in the model was the right color and had the correct number of floors."
A new feature in the tram lobby will offer visitors on the ground a live webcam stream of the view from the observation space at the top of the Arch. The webcam will give those waiting a preview of what they'll see. It also makes the view accessible to people who use wheelchairs, visitors afraid of heights, and others who choose not to purchase a ticket to the top.