Fun Places to Visit
City Museum is Fun for Everyone (St. Louis, Missouri)
By Phil Dotree — March 14, 2011
The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri should really have a different name. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, museums should be cold, too clean, and you shouldn’t be able to touch anything. They’re static, maybe even a little bit boring. The City Museum, on the other hand, has a 40-foot slide and a massive ball pit. It's more mayhem than museum.
The roof of the City Museum in st. louis, Missouri, houses planes, castles, and many more amusing and intriguing items only accessible by climbing. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
It’s a huge playground, made almost entirely of recycled components, where every piece of art and architecture is interactive. At any given time of day (and up until 1:00 A.M. in the summer) adults and children play in underground cabins, on roped circles of sturdy wire suspended high above the building, and even in a “skateless” skate park (on the building's third floor) with ramps and ropes. The museum is frequented by such celebrities as Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. The Museum also hosts concerts.
The City Museum is an insurance nightmare, but also is indisputably a legendary St. Louis institution. It was founded in 1993 by St. Louis sculptor and entrepreneur Bob Cassilly (1949– ) and his second wife, Gail, who envisioned an artistic structure right in the heart of downtown St. Louis with a revolving set of unique, hands-on exhibits.
The end of the Three-Story Slide on the museum's first floor of the City Museum in St. Louis. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Bob Cassilly earned a master's degree in art from Fontbonne University in St. Louis. Known for his giant animal sculptures, some Cassilly hippo sculpture graces a playground in Manhattan's Riverside Park, and he also did two turtles for Turtle Park in St. Louis.
Guests enjoy the City Museum's Three Story Slide. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The City Museum slowly began to take shape after the Cassillys bought a 750,000-square-foot (70,000-square-meter) complex, which included the abandoned 600,000-square-foot factory of the International Shoe Company, offices and a 10-story warehouse, for 69 cents per square foot. (As “Around the MIdwest” columnist Mike MIchaelson wrote in 1999, “First in booze [Anheuser-Busch], first in shoes and last in the American League: That was the tag they used to hang on St. Louis.”)
A concrete fish staircase on the St. Louis City Museum's first floor. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
"We never set out to do something this elaborate," Cassilly said in a 2002 interview. Originally just an aquarium was planned for the factory warehouse's interior (which had become a parking garage in the years after the shoe company departed the scene) but the concept started to expand in size and complexity when Cassilly concluded that there should be a ramp above the aquarium, and then some human-fashioned caves to go around that, and so on and so forth.
Guests crawl through tight (and often uncomfortable) spaces as a Rube Goldberg-like contraption moves a 24,000-pound block of granite up-and-down three floors of the City Museum in St. Louis. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Throughout it all, the Willy Wonka-like Cassilly, his partner Dave Jump, and the construction crew were guided by their original, unwavering policy of using recycled materials. Everything in the museum originally had another purpose entirely, such as the brightly-colored rails of the winding staircase, formerly part of the shoe factory's conveyor belt.
The City Museum's caves extend from a simple entrance into a complex maze. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
They began to fill the Depression-era warehouse/factory with discarded materials that were bent, shifted, and molded into various pieces— everything from tubes to mirrors to aquariums. After years of construction, the museum opened its doors to the public on October 25, 1997, helping to spark a renovation boom in downtown St. Louis. In 2005 The Project for Public Spaces listed the museum among the “Great Public Spaces in the World.”
Guests read a book while surrounded by giant sculptures on the first floor of the City Museum, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The City Museum can accommodate about 2,500 people in its multi-story section of the facility, chock-full of off-beat exhibits and ever-surprising, far-out play spaces ranging from sculpted caves and tunnels to ready-made, reused objects such as airplanes, a fire engine, and a school bus on the roof.
A hidden "log cabin" on the first floor of the St. Louis city museum. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The City Museum's success led to quick expansion, invigorating downtown St. Louis. New sections of the museum were added, including the Enchanted Caves, a huge system of caverns and caves with plenty of tight spaces for children and adventurous adults to cram through.
Outside, a plane was suspended by wire high above the city. Like anything else in the museum, it’s interactive. Visitors with especially strong stomachs and who have no fear of heights can climb up for a gorgeous view.
One of the many modified tubes that guests can use to travel through the City Museum in St. Louis. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Each of the museum’s five floors has a unique identity. The Mezzanine has a food court and a bar for adult patrons where local acts frequently play live music. It also offers easy access to the outside sections of the museum, including a massive ball pit which is always full of warring children and adults.
The first floor also has a magnificent fish tank, huge concrete whales and a “Puking Pig,” which is a pendulum-like pig sculpture that gradually fills with water until it turns over.
The ornately decorated aquarium in the City Museum's first floor. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The second floor has a shoelace factory which showcases the building’s roots. It also contains the 13,500-square-foot World Aquarium, which has a remarkably varied selection (10,000+ specimens) of fish, amphibians, and reptiles. The World Aquarium is actually the new extension of the St. Louis Children's Aquarium, which includes such rare and endangered animals as Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, the smallest marine turtle in the world—they wieght about 100 pounds (45 kg) with a carapace (top shell) measuring between 24-28 inches (60-70 cm) in length. The aquarium also opened with a two-headed snake, an albino red-eared slider and a large collection of snakes and shells.
“In my opinion the aquarium itself is a pretty unique collection,” said Leonard Sonnenschein, the first president of the World Aquarium. The aquarium sports a shark tank with a glass tunnel running through it that's just big enough to crawl through, along with a tank for stingray petting and feeding at certain times.
A walkway hangs over the first floor of the city museum in St. Louis. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
As is the case with most of the museum, visitors have the option of casually walking through the aquarium or taking the more dynamic (and strenuous) path of tunnels and crawl spaces that offer up-close views of the vivid sea life. And like the rest of the museum, the aquarium is based on recycling discarded parts and other items, but uses them to emphasize conservation and the environmental impact humans have on ocean life.
There’s an interactive element here, too. Visitors can take an enclosed slide through the shark tank and touch surgeons and the aforementioned rays (actually, they're probably skates, which are like rays but without the poisonous, stinging tail). The always-present staff is informative in the aquarium and always monitors traffic for the safety of both visitors and the animals.
A sculpture of a fish becomes a great hiding place for City Museum guests. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Although the entrance to the World Aquarium costs extra, it’s highly recommended. The bizarre selection and interactive tanks makes the aquarium a great deal of fun and certainly a unique experience, especially for younger children with any interest in aquatic life. The World Aquarium is also regularly expanded and refreshed.
An overview of some of the beautiful mosaic work in the City Museum. Ironically, some mosaics that decorate the museum’s interior are made from floor sweepings from the St. Louis-based Boeing Co. as well as from hundreds of old pens and watchbands. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Most of the City Museum’s pieces are composed of industrial components, which can give certain floors a steam-punk design. This is especially true of the area surrounding Beatnik Bob’s Museum of Mirth, Mystery, and Mayhem on the museum’s third floor.
The design of different City Museum sections can change abruptly. Here it changes from a mosaic stone to log cabin look. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There’s a perfectly built miniature city with a working model train right outside Beatnick Bob’s Museum, which is another bar that offers some peace from the loud attractions below it. This area also has a palm reader and drinks and snacks for children.
All manner of recycled components are used in the City Museum exhibits and play areas, including these shaped wood pieces. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The third floor is also home to the Skateless Skate Park, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Skateboards and roller skates aren’t allowed here, but guests have fun running and jumping up ramps and holding onto a number of ropes that extend over the installation.
A turtle pond in the City Museum. Throwing coins into the pond is prohibited, and the tank is frequently cleaned because of guests who ignore this rule. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There are also rooms for younger children who might not be ready for the City Museum’s sometimes physically demanding maze of creativity. The third floor has one such room, where younger kids can play and make artwork with the help of museum staff.
Wrapped coil that guests must climb to ascend into the City Museum in saint Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
When visitors on the third floor are ready to go home, there’s a three-story slide that leads back to the entranceway.
The fourth floor is a vintage clothing store known as The Bail Out, which can be a great stop for those visitors in the market for some really smart-looking souvenirs. On top of the building is a towering outdoor amusement area called MonstroCity, an extension of the building’s playground.
A slide and staircase leading to an area for smaller children. The slide's rollers come from an old conveyor belt. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
MonstroCity makes it seem like the City Museum’s creativity is literally bursting out of its roof—the suspended Saber 40 aircraft, fire engine, castle turret, 25-foot-tall cupola, 4-foot wide wrought-iron slinkies and coiling rings filled with climbers really top off the building and make it impossible to miss if you’re driving by.
Mosaic tile decorates many of the City Museum's pillars. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There’s too much at the City Museum to see in one visit, or two visits, or half a dozen visits, and certainly too many attractions to list in this article. It’s a must-see attraction in St. Louis, whether you’re visiting with a family or alone.
A giant, 55-foot-long, climb-through bowhead whale sculpture, surrounded by mosaic tile, is one of the museum's most beautiful artistic pieces. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Adults who aren’t interested in crawling and finding ways to navigate from one floor to the next will enjoy idling by the first floor fish tank. Children will find new nooks to explore on every single visit.
Teenagers will act like the children as they’re quickly swept up in the circus-like atmosphere—by the way, there’s also an actual circus somewhere on the building’s third floor, although we missed it on our first few visits. This is called the Everyday Circus, and it's basically a sort of circus school for both children and adults. The Everyday Circus performs daily at the museum and is available for private parties.
A young guest slides down the three-story Monster Slide. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Around the corner from the Circus is Art City where guests can dabble in various art techniques and see demonstrations of glass blowing, weaving, spinning, papermaking, woodcarving and pottery. At the “Art From Recycled Materials” area visitors can get in touch with their inner creative soul, and as a result of encountering this exhibit, may never again want to throw anything away.
Architecture is one of the arts, and the City Museum's “Architectural Museum” will enable you to scrutinize salvaged treasures from the past—sculptures and ornaments that once adorned many city rooftops. A favorite talent represented here is Louis Sullivan, master architect (Frank Lloyd Wright started out working for him) who designed buildings in St. Louis and Chicago. Bruce Gerrie is the founder and curator of this area.
Guests enjoy the Skateless Skate Park, which is home to the “world’s largest pencil,” that's 76 feet long and weighs 21,500 lbs. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Several items from the architectural collection have become permanent (or at least semi-permanent) fixtures at the museum. For example, the facade of the old St. Louis Tile Company building now serves as a ticket booth and gift shop entrance. Weidel’s Ladies Tailoring College building was rebuilt as a station for a miniature electric train that takes small children through tunnels. This train, dubbed the City Express, has no schedule: it departs at the whims of the engineer and at the request and interest of City Museum's under 48-inch-tall visitors. Measuring 1/8th the size of an American Locomotive Company line, this battery-powered locomotive weighs 800 pounds and runs on two DC motors. The train tracks travel under a bridge, through a cosmic tunnel, and next to an even smaller train.
This map actually doesn't show all of the city museum in St. Louis—for example, at the very top of the building there's the big eli ferris wheel and a 360 degree view of St. Louis—but it gives you an idea of the varied nature of the place. (map courtesy city museum, st. louis, missouri.)
This tiny train contained in the City Express loop includes a Pete Fordyce HO series set. Much of this exhibit was constructed by St. Louis' premier commercial model rail builder, John Ellebracht, and the set depicts the 1963 Pine Bluff, Missouri to Little Rock, Arkansas leg of the Missouri Pacific line. You can view the display either from beyond the safety walls for the larger City Express miniature railroad or climb through, over and under the display to a special viewing cage right in the middle of the model railroad. (This particular section is obviously not handicap-accessible.)
A miniature town on the third floor is one of the few parts of the museum that guests shouldn't touch. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Bob Cassilly is still the chief architect working on the City Museum in its entirety and he shows no signs of slowing down or losing his creative edge. He doesn’t seem to mind the fact that museums are supposed to be sterile and safe. His is neither. It’s a living, growing ode to reusable materials and imagination. It feels like it was designed by children. Believe us, we mean that in the best possible way.
In 2004, the “Lofts at City Museum” was developed in the same building as the museum. Residents moving into these 1,300 to 2,800-square-foot apartments received a one-year pass for several museum attractions, including Beatnik Bob's cafe in the museum, as well as the MonstroCity amusement area. They also received access to the roof, which at the time was under construction while Cassilly designed the water park, complete with water-spraying elephants and an elevated glass-bottomed hot tub.
The coiling staircase that leads to each of the City Museum's floors. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
“You just start playing with all the different pieces,” Cassilly was quoted at the time. “With the lofts, it’s the same approach, to make it feel like you have a unique space.”
The City Museum might be a better attraction for families looking for a good time than the Gateway Arch or Six Flags. It will make you feel more involved and excited than the former, and it will cost a good deal less than the latter.
the Ball Crawl. Old dodge balls in this ball pit are one of the City Museum's most popular attractions. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Although pricing changes occasionally at the City Museum, it’s currently $12 for general admission, which includes most of the Museum’s exhibits. Admission to the top level of the City Museum, including MonstroCity, is another $5. Admission to the World Aquarium costs an additional $6.00.
The “Puking Pig” unleashes a mouthful of water in background as seal sculpture looks on. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There are discounts for groups with more than 15 people. Call ahead to the City Museum to arrange reservations for group visits. The number for reservations to the City Museum is 314-647-6011.
Phil Dotree has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Fark, Digg.com, etc.). He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com.