Not Your Typical Museum
When planning a trip to St. Louis, people usually think of seeing the famous Gateway Arch, visiting the St. Louis Zoo, or attending a Cardinals baseball game. Most people would not consider going to a place called the City Museum. With a name like that, it’s probably full of historical exhibits and presentations, right? Wrong! The City Museum is not really a museum at all. It would be better described as an incredible art project that doubles as a massive jungle gym for kids, teenagers, and even adults.
The City Museum began as an old, abandoned shoe factory that was purchased by Bob and Gail Cassilly in 1993. Within three years, the ten-story building was hardly recognizable. The Cassillys and a crew of artists and playground engineers took architectural and industrial objects from around the city of St. Louis and repurposed them to create museum exhibits that were meant to be climbed on, in, and around. Bob Cassilly served as the City Museum’s creative director up until 2011, when he passed away. Rick Erwin serves as the creative director today, and he continues to help the museum evolve and grow.
When you approach the City Museum, your first sight will be a twisting and turning jumble of metal beams and wire structures intertwining with one another and wrapping around the front of the building. Throughout this massive jungle gym, onlookers might notice castle turrets, two separate airplane bodies, giant ball pits filled with rubber dodgeballs, and even a school bus hanging precariously off the roof of the building. This contraption is known as MonstroCity, and it even includes a nineteenth-century log cabin that serves as a bar and entertainment venue. Visitors are welcome to climb all over and explore every inch of this adult-sized jungle gym.
After entering the building itself, you’ll be presented with the first floor—a winding maze of wooden, metal, and concrete sculptures resembling everything from treehouses to life-sized whales. If you make your way through these beautiful creations, passing a huge fish tank on your way, you might find the Enchanted Caves or the Shoe Shafts at the center of the building. The Enchanted Caves are hand-crafted tunnels and caves that wind through the heart of the City Museum. The Shoe Shafts are a collection of massive slides, the largest of which is a ten-story slide that starts at the very top of the building and ends back on the first floor.
There are a plethora of other attractions and oddities throughout the City Museum, including two food courts, an art gallery, and a collection of vintage opera posters. The second floor houses the vault room, which has a bank vault from the First National Bank of St. Louis; a hall of mirrors; and a giant hamster wheel that was once used in aircraft construction. This floor also contains the Shoelace Factory, where guests can order custom shoelaces that are made on-site.
The third floor gets even crazier, including an entire circus area, a collection of skateboarding ramps, a variety of old-school arcade cabinets and pinball machines, and a miniature train for children to ride. This section of the museum is also home to the world’s largest pencil and the world’s largest underwear.
The museum doesn’t end here though. The fourth floor used to be home to an entire aquarium exhibit and rehabilitation center for animals and fish, which has now been moved to a different location in St. Louis. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to visit the fifth floor as a visitor, but if you enjoy the vibe of the City Museum enough you could literally move in. That’s right, this floor consists of unique apartments designed in the same unique style as the rest of the museum underneath.
The Cherry on Top
The exhibits of the City Museum actually extend all the way up onto the roof. Here you can experience even more slides and climbing structures, view impressive sculptures, and even ride a Ferris wheel. If you’re ready to conquer your fear of heights, you can venture out into the aforementioned school bus balanced precariously off the edge of the roof. On Saturdays the museum has extended hours into the evening, which means that the roof offers a great view of the St. Louis city lights at night.
The roof portion is only open during certain months of the year though, so you’ll have to plan accordingly if you want to experience every inch that the City Museum has to offer. It’s worth the extra effort though. The City Museum is one of the best hidden gems around and should definitely be included in your itinerary if you’re ever visiting St. Louis.
— Nate Harris