City Museum in St. Louis Features Art You Have to Touch - and Climb On

Posted by Mark Hodapp on 04/23/2015

It may very well be the world's largest jungle gym. Located at 750 North 16 St. in downtown St. Louis, City Museum is not so much a museum as it is a massive playground - for kids of all ages.

"It is an art installation for people who think art should be challenging," said City Museum spokesman Richard Callow. "Many people misunderstand the name and think of it as the city's museum. (St. Louis) Mayor (Francis) Slay gets complaints and praise about us. (City Museum) is actually a place that displays pieces of a city. Hence, City Museum - not 'The City Museum.'"

From the rooftop to the strange subterranean tunnels built beneath the lobby floor, the late sculptor Bob Cassilly and his team of 20 artisans created something truly unique at this 600,000-square-foot building that earlier had served as an International Shoe warehouse. Playwright Tennessee Williams even worked there.

Cassilly died in 2011 while he was creating a new, similarly whimsical tourist attraction, Cementland, in North St. Louis.

A classically-trained sculptor, Cassilly set out to make City Museum a unique visitor attraction. Mission accomplished. City Museum now attracts more than 700,000 visitors annually.

"Bob was a man who was born to fight with gravity," Callow said. "His art -welded, bolted, suspended, soaring, plunging, buried - defies it. The way he chose to display his work makes no sense unless you get up and move within it."

But please heed the following personal advice: you will probably be very tired and sore after visiting. The "museum" offers a mixture of playground equipment, including 24 slides, a fun house and architectural marvels that Cassilly made out of unique objects he collected over the years.

"Bob used to say that two of anything was clutter, but 2,000 of the same thing was a collection," Callow said. "City Museum is built out of Bob collections - and the collections of things that like-minded people gave him.

"Bob treated one-of-a-kinds a little differently than most institutions would. He would store it until an installation of other things required it. The wonderful giant praying mantis is a good example. Another artist would have displayed it. Bob used it to top off a water tower."

City Museum is particularly proud of the fact that people from around the world think of them when they find themselves with things too large or too numerous to keep. Where else can you find old chimneys, construction cranes, miles of tile, a fire truck, a school bus and two abandoned planes to explore? There is even a piece of machinery that was once part of an aircraft factory.

Another similar piece was once part of a tannery in St. Louis' once flourishing leather trades district.

"Bob's vision was that all great buildings had secret spaces," Callow said. "And that adventuresome people would find those spaces filled with fountains and fire and monsters. He tunneled into the heart of his building and found just that."            

From the earliest days of City Museum, the caves were central to Cassilly's plan. The City Museum now treats all work done in the caves as special to Cassilly's memory. St. George's Chamber is named for a senior staff member, George.

While the museum is designed to be enjoyed by children of all ages, visitors under the age of 16 must be accompanied by a chaperone who is 18 years of age or older. Two of the museum's most popular attractions are the "Enchanted Caves" and "Shoe Shafts," which run through the center of the museum and go all the way to the 10th floor of the building.

Opened in 2003, the caves were hand-sculpted by Cassilly and his bunch. And from every direction, a different creature and/or object is staring back at you. Since 2007, the caves have held a 1924 Wurlitzer pipe organ from the Rivoli Theater in New York City.

The Shoe Shafts opened at the museum in 2003 with one three-story spiral slide, and five years later, Cassilly added a 10-story slide that starts at the roof and goes down to the caves' main entrance.

The Shoe Shafts were developed from structures built for the International Shoe distribution operation. In order to get shoes from various floors to the loading dock, International Shoe workers would place the shoes on spiral shafts. Cassilly later converted the chutes into a spiral slide that deposits visitors in the museum's caves.

City Museum is open daily. Tickets cost $12 for people ages 3 and up. Children two and under are admitted free. There is a separate admission for the World Aquarium. For tickets or more information, call (314) 231-2389.

City Museum Attractions

  • Two planes: The story goes, the two planes were purchased after the Great Flood of 1993. One of the planes belonged to singer Wayne Newton. The planes are now part of the museum's MonstroCity, where you can crawl through a series of wire tubes and explore the planes.
  • A school bus: To create the museum's exhibits, a team of artisans often had to cut through the building's floors or hoist objects up the side of the building - sometimes without permits, as they did with a school bus, donated by the Roxana School District, that overhangs the roof. Yes, thrill seekers, you can actually make the bus bounce.
  • Fiberglass: What are those things that look like icicles hanging from the first-floor ceiling? It's actually fiberglass donated by Boeing.
  • Cooling tube: A cooling tube, located on the first floor, came from St. Louis-based brewery Anheuser-Busch. The tube used to be inside the beer tank, to keep the beer cold. Now, you can climb the cooling tube up to other floors of the museum.
  • Shoelace Museum: In the museum, you will even see a piece of history re-raveled with the collection of working vintage shoelace machines from the St. Louis-based Alox Manufacturing Co. Alox made bootstraps for U.S. soldiers during World War II. Now, they're making brightly colored shoelaces, necklaces, and other items for purchase in the museum's gift shop.
  • World Aquarium: The museum houses a world aquarium. The aquarium houses a variety of animals such as sharks, rays, sea turtles, parrots, tortoises, terrapins, otters, snakes, alligators, and sloths as well as the expected freshwater and saltwater fish. The World Aquarium even has a shark tank with a glass tunnel running through it, big enough to crawl through, but too small to walk.
  • Vault Room: On the second floor of the three-story museum, you will find the Vault Room. The Vault Room contains two 3,000-pound vault doors built in mid-19th-century St. Louis and installed in a bank in Chicago. This room also has a marble bar and about 1,000 safety deposit boxes. In the middle of the room is a "human hamster wheel," donated by McDonnell Douglas, which used it to make fuselages in St. Louis for small airplanes.
  • The third floor is home to a number of attractions. In one area is Skateless Park, which is a collection of skateboard ramps, without the skateboards, in place having rope swings tied in front of the ramps and mats to land on.
  • There is even the Everyday Circus, a circus school with students from 6 to 80-plus. The Everyday Circus performs daily at the museum and does private parties.