Slides, whales, and tunnels, oh my: A 'museum' like no other

Who can resist climbing a bus hanging off a building? CNET Road Trip 2013 visited the City Museum in St. Louis, and packed with secret tunnels and giant whales, it's unlike any other museum.

The City Museum in St. Louis is almost nothing like a standard-issue city museum. After all, it has a school bus hanging off the roof, and a passenger jet suspended over its entryway. Plus endless tunnels, slides, and hidden compartments. It couldn't be more fun. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

ST. LOUIS -- Other cities may be better known for their art scenes, or their architecture, their planetariums, or their parks. But nowhere else has anything quite like the playground meets science fair meets historical architecture meets circus show that is the City Museum.

The brainchild of internationally known artist Bob Cassilly, the City Museum could hardly be less like what its name implies. Though there are paintings, historical artifacts, and educational exhibits, it's hard to imagine another museum whose director describes his job as "I build slides for a living. How hard is [that?]"

Indeed, the City Museum is what you would get if you let the really smart 10-year-old son or daughter of an artist convert a giant warehouse and gave him or her a nearly limitless credit card to buy things with.

That, of course, isn't how City Museum came about, but you'd never know it to walk inside. I had been told by friends in California, and one in St. Louis -- as well as several readers -- to check out the City Museum, but I didn't do much research on it in advance of visiting as part of Road Trip 2013, and so I was totally unprepared for what I encountered.

Thankfully, though the place was packed on a midweek afternoon and all I had was a couple hours to check it out, I had Director Rick Erwin to take me on a frenetic tour. We started on the roof, where some of City Museum's most famous pieces hang precariously out over the edge, only oblivion below. Specifically, we're talking about a school bus that looks as though it crashed through a guardrail and came to rest with about a third of its length suspended over open space beyond the building's edge.

This piece represents Cassilly's and Erwin's attitude to conventional notions of safety and risk in public buildings. Climb all over things, they say, and even urge. Why else would you build a funhouse like this filled with never-ending passageways, tunnels, slides, hidden compartments, and other ridiculousness?

That's not to say, of course, that the City Museum is full of danger. What appears risky is, in fact, quite safe, and anyone using common sense can make their way through the facility without so much as a scratch. But clearly, Cassilly imagined a place where the normal rules that prohibit visitors to public exhibitions from physically interacting with them go straight off the roof. Literally.

Daniel Terdiman

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Sadly, Cassilly died a couple years ago in a bulldozer accident. But Erwin stayed on as director and seems perfectly able to continue Cassilly's vision, even without the artist on hand to offer feedback. And one thing that means is a never-ending series of new projects to work on. At the time of my writing, in fact, there were six new projects under way, and it would seem that Erwin and his crew of about 10 builders are always looking for exciting new ideas to execute and unleash on their adoring public.

In fact, Erwin said, one of the most common discussions to happen between him and his crew goes like this: "I say, 'this would be cool,' and they say, 'that's cool, but this would be even better.'" And that leads to things like a new Egyptian sarcophagus that's almost done, a mini-Gateway Arch complete with ping-pong balls that whirl around inside a series of little glass cut-outs, and a never-ending collection of vintage architectural elements from famous buildings throughout the Midwest.

How does Erwin budget for it all? He doesn't. He said that City Museum has a professional accountant who keeps the books, and that the admission fees paid by the thousands of daily visitors allow Erwin to take his credit card and use it to his heart's desire. When I ask him about the notion of a budget, in fact, he laughed as if there couldn't be a sillier question.

But it seems to work, and during my short visit, I came across no end of kids, and adults, with giant smiles on their faces. They ran around, squealing with delight, as they encountered a nearly endless supply of secret compartments, hidden tunnels, and things as odd as an old passenger jet suspended outside the front of the building. It's all meant to be climbed, walked around, slid down, and generally touched and prodded.

The City Museum is housed inside what was once the world's largest shoe distributor, and that history is definitely still alive inside. For one thing, Cassilly and his builders turned what was once a system for delivering shoes from the top floors to those below into a 10-story spiral slide. As you can imagine, there's usually a line to go down it.

There's also a working shoelace factory where a local entrepreneur uses the building's shoelace-making equipment to both demonstrate how laces are made, and to make wares to sell. The City Museum offered spaces like this to a number of entrepreneurs and told them to do their business in exchange for a cut of the action. Like so much else here, it just seems to work, despite a lack of what would be considered normal business practices.

And what else is there to discover, beyond tunnels and slides too numerous to count? Erwin took me to see the world's largest pencil -- which weighs in at 21,500 pounds and uses actual No. 2 lead and real eraser rubber -- as well as the world's largest pair of underpants. Not long ago, the giant briefs were stolen. But a month later, they mysteriously reappeared, washed, and accompanied by a matching woman's pair of underwear. This is simply not the kind of thing that happens in a standard-issue museum.

 

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