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St Louis City Museum (or is it?)


If the headline above seems a bit off-kilter, so is today's subject. From the name, you might think it is a place with exhibits tracing the history of the city from its earliest days to now—and you'd be way wrong.

P1320682P1320691P1320693Right from the beginning, you know this is no ordinary museum!

That said, I can't tell you that it's a theme park, a playground, a mystery maze, a warehouse of relics, a whatever. I can tell you, though, that it's a tremendously popular destination that can be more or less what you (and all the kids you'll find there) make it. Oh, and allow lots of time; you won't want to leave soon!


And by the way, it's not an official 'city' anything: it's a privately-owned project founded by artist Bob Cassilly and his wife in the 1990s. Its home is a former shoe factory and warehouse, but you'd never know it from the inside now!


Cassilly remained in charge until his death in 2011; he gave himself the title "artistic director," as he filled the space with exhibits that include important architectural remnants from long-gone buildings, huge whales and sea monsters, mysterious forests, climbing towers and multi-story slides and at least two airplanes connected to the building by rope walkways.


I'll save myself writing some of the flavor with this bit from Wikipedia:

The original part of the museum, the first floor is home to a life-size Bowhead Whale that guests can walk through to view a large fish tank from the mezzanine. Also on the first floor are a number of tunnels that run across the ceiling, hiding above a sea of fiberglass insulation cut to give the impression of icicles. To get into these, one can climb up a giant Slinky, which is an old refrigerating coil (donated by Anheuser-Busch), or through a tree house, that now spans all the way to the third floor, which leads into a giant hollowed-out tree and a cabin on the other side of the floor. The floor itself is covered with the largest continuous mosaic in the US, which morphs its way up columns. In one area is a tunnel known as the "Underground Whaleway" which runs beneath the floor and into the "Original Caves."


There's a map or floor plan of sorts, but the shapes are irregular, and there are so many openings, stairways, climbing spaces and slides from one level to another that the concept of 'floor' is almost ludicrous.


But let's not forget the Shoelace Factory, tucked away in one corner, making and selling the products of its antique braiding machines.


The multi-story slides grew from shorter ones that the shoe factory had used to move materials from one floor to another. The longest current one starts on the roof and leads to the lower floor.


Somehow, I missed the world's largest pencil, 75 feet long and weighing as much as 1.9 million regular pencils—but I did get to see lots of regular pencils and pens!


Unusual sculptures are scattered throughout, some with easily recognizable cultural references, such as the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe; others are not so easy!


At first glance, I thought that was a real seagull that had found its way in, but no, though it was posed like me, admiring the huge chain link that once helped move heavy loads at construction sites.


Repurposed architecture is scattered throughout the building, starting with the ticket office and gift shop using elements of the former St Louis Title Company building. The large locomotive model hangs just outside an exterior wall salvaged from a railroad station.


But if the station and engine seem too literal, it's only steps away from a model railroad whose retaining wall turns into the head and legs of a giant millipede.


There are other examples of repurposed architectural decoration around the building, in various styles. One area showcases rescued elements from Louis Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange Building; a restorer is at work on some of the elements and interacts with curious visitors.


Nothing special about the items in the case above, and that's sort of the point; it's one of three cases devoted to ordinary things found in excavations for newer buildings around the city.


Spinning, climbing around the building and playing at Skateless Park, an area of skateboard ramps and devices can burn up some kid energy (and I saw some adults at it, too), but for those of another bent, there's a large pinball parlor.


And there's Art City, which has a variety of activities and classes open to all, with all kinds of art materials.


Could anyone fail to find fun at the St Louis City Museum? No way!



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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