“Who wants $40,000 anyhow?” Armstrong the Jefferson Memorial Expansion

Harris Armstrong was a celebrated local architect whose modernist designs were popular in residential and commercial projects from the late 1940s through the 1960s. In 1948, he placed fourth in a national competition to expand the Jefferson Memorial. Although Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch took first place, Armstrong’s design was highly praised and he won accolades for being the only finisher to have submitted a proposal as an individual, rather than part of a team.


Article about the competition in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 19 February 1948. Harris Armstrong Collection, Series 11, Box 4, folder 5.

Luther Ely Smith, the President of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association (JNEMA), wrote Armstrong in 1948 to commend him for “the fine contribution which you so generously made of your time and effort by entering in this competition and thereby contributing substantially to its success.” (full transcription)


Luther Ely Smith to Harris Armstrong, 17 March 1948. Harris Armstrong Collection, Series 11, Box 4, folder 5.

Armstrong called architecture “a creative activity of the mind,” and stated that the Jefferson expansion was “among the most important architectural problems in Saint Louis throughout my entire professional life.”



Harris Armstrong, Report on the St. Louis riverfront, 23 May 1949. Harris Armstrong Collection, Series 11, Box 4, folder 5.

1949_armstrong_report_jefferson_expansion_2(click here for full transcription of the report)

Many local and national architects wrote to congratulate Armstrong; here the correspondent “Jean” offers some humorous consolation. The $40,000 she references was the prize awarded to the winning team. (full transcription)

Who wants $40,000 anyhow? Tennessee Williams says that after he made money on The Glass Menagerie and went to live in ease his creative powers dried up. He had to give it all up and go to asimple [sic] place in Mexico to write and write and write again. And, lo, A Street Car Named Desire.


“Jean” to Harris Armstrong, 19 February 1948. Harris Armstrong Collection, Series 11, Box 4, folder 5.

More about Harris Armstrong

Armstrong was born in 1899 and became the leader of the modernist architectural movement in St. Louis. Armstrong’s designs for several private residences can be seen in Kirkwood and other suburban St. Louis areas. In 1964 the American Stove Company used his architectural plan for their new headquarters. Armstrong partnered with Japanese architect Isamu Noguchi to produce the design. Several decades later the building was acquired by the U-haul company, which ignited public outcry and a protracted legal battle when the U-haul directors decided to cover the exterior of the building with metal sheeting. Noguchi’s striking ceiling was only recently restored and is now open to public view. Armstrong’s personal papers, designs, and related material are held by Washington University’s Department of Special Collections.


This post is part of an occasional series, “Special Delivery – Letters from the WUSTL Archives and Special Collections.”

For more information about the letters and documents displayed here, or in general about Special Collections please contact us.

About the author

Lisa Lillie is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis.