The largest and most innovative play space in St. Louis is contained within and attached to a ten-story warehouse which had outlived its original purpose and seemed doomed, because of its cumbersome size, to be leveled for city parking.
That is until the vision of a highly creative St. Louis artist by the name of Robert Cassilly began to take shape within and without the former shipping warehouse for International Shoe Company.
Cassilly envisioned a City Museum atypical (excepting Architecture Hall) of the museum experience. Not only would it contain obsolete pieces of machinery and factory equipment, broken and discarded fragments of city life, it would be a city unto itself housing an everyday circus, aquarium, offices, lofts, parking garage, art studios, toddler playground, ball pit, a concrete skate-boarding park, tree houses, coiled crawl-spaces and man-made caves.
Eventually it would include the city’s largest, vintage clothing store and a roof-top amusement park. It would be an almost-entirely-interactive experience for the visitor. There would be art all around and the impact on children would be subliminal and explosive – spawning creativity – some of which could find expression in clay and other mediums in the museum’s Art City.
Opened to the public on October 25 1997, City Museum (http://www.citymuseum.org/home.asp) has been daringly evolving ever since – a soaring, 600,000 sq. foot wonderland of multi-story-slides, vertical caves, climbing structures, attractions and tunnels. In 2005 PPS (The Project for Public Spaces) listed the City Museum as one of the “Great Public Places in the World”.*
In many respects the City Museum Building mirrors what it takes – the vision, risk, financing, hard work and determination – to bring a dying city back to life. Inspired and energized by what Cassilly and twenty artisans who share his vision have accomplished here – singles, couples and families, from post-graduates to retirees, are re-inventing the larger downtown St. Louis on whose northern edge City Museum stands.
I remember when the concrete floors and pillars of the first floor warehouse were bare and utilitarian. They have since been rendered into works of art – the floor the “canvas” for an enormous marine-life mural and the pillars stunningly faced with mirror glass mosaics or river and ocean shells. And while one blogger considers the City Museum a-typical of its location, to me the City Museum is quintessentially St. Louis. Though I will concede that if you’re under the age of fifty that might take some explaining.
Self-explanatory are the reconstructed walls of the St. Louis Title Company. Rescued from oblivion in a city dump, they wrap the museum’s ticket booth and gift shop. So too, are the stained glass windows, brass door knobs and wrought iron railings that adorned St. Louis homes and churches, and architectural fragments of Louis Sullivan and George Grant Elmslie designs lining Architecture Hall. Bob Cassilly has a genius for finding discarded treasure, salvaging it and sometimes re-cycling it in astonishing ways. Visitors from around the U.S. and the world are heard to remark as they stare in amazement, “I’ve never seen anything like this!”
What do “Enchanted Caves” have to do with St. Louis? If Bob Cassilly seems somewhat fixated on cave construction it may be because there are more natural, limestone caves beneath the City of St. Louis than any other city in the world, an extensive labyrinth of them. But none of them reach beneath this building. So he conjured in concrete a 10-story labyrinth of his own, the walls of which morph into salamanders, mermaids and other phantasms. His most recent project (seen in part to the left) involves first-story cave expansion and ceiling crawl-spaces.
For those of us with a half-century of St. Louis memories, the City Museum re-creates the exciting milieu of bygone amusement parks, combining the Highlands at Forest Park, with Chain of Rocks overlooking the Mississippi and the S.S. Admiral (the largest inland cruise boat in U. S.). How? With a permanent circus on the third floor, carnival treats, a four-story Ferris Wheel on the roof, a spiral shoe chute converted into a ten-story slide and Bill Christman’s nostalgic arcade, the Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem.
As in an amusement park, bringing children to play in the City Museum and outside in MonstroCity requires a high degree of responsibility on the part of parents and teachers. Occasionally I will hear an adult say something to a group of children that causes my heart to skip a beat. “It’s 10:00. We’ll meet back here at 12:00 noon for lunch. Until then you’re on your own.” Not every part of the City Museum is designed for every age group. And cautionary signs that warn of risk should be taken seriously in order to avoid injury.
In 1935 Tennessee Williams experienced his first nervous breakdown in this building, the result of working all day in the shoe factory and trying to write all night. He also made a friend here by the name of Stanley Kowalski, whose name he would borrow for the lead character in his Pulitzer-Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
So the building was historic even before it became an international destination.
St. Louisans live, work, eat, and play in the City Museum – a microcosm of the city indeed and a phantasmagoria of the unexpected and exhilarating. I like to think that hundreds of years from now, when this building is gone, the air will still resonate with the excited laughter that fills this space every day that it’s open. Imagine a future St. Louis shaped by children whose creativity was ignited in the City Museum!
* PPS/Project for Public Spaces (http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_place_id=860&type_id=0_)
Photo Credits: “The S.S. Admiral” – in the public domain at wikipedia.com. All other photos – Tom & Maureen Kavanaugh.