Before his untimely death in a construction accident at the age of 61, sculptor, designer and recycler-supreme Bob Cassilly was to St. Louis, Mo., what the fantastical architect Antonio Gaudi was to the city of Barcelona, Spain. Cassilly’s civic sculptures of whimsical creatures cavort in a variety of public spaces around the city. He populated Forest Park with baboons, a hippopotamus and the giant turtles in the Turtle Park playground area.
But without question Cassilly’s masterpiece is City Museum, a St. Louis attraction that bills itself as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel.” And a marvel it is — a realm of childlike wonder and blazing artistic imagination that defies description.
Located at 701 N. 15th St., the 10-story warehouse complex that is City Museum was once the thriving International Shoe Factory. But in 1983 the former industrial giant of footwear was just one of many derelict structures that blighted the downtown neighborhood. That’s when Cassilly and his wife, Gail, purchased the property for a song.
Armed with boundless imagination, a crew of devoted volunteers and a knack for transforming discarded materials into ingeniously inventive architecture, Cassilly and company began construction on the proposed museum two years after the property was purchased. City Museum first opened in 1997, but for years after that, construction continued and new innovative installations were added.
Today the museum stands like a mighty 600,000-square-foot fortress where touching, climbing, sliding, looking and exploring are the order of the day. It’s a place that puts a smile on your face the moment you arrive. And it stays there long after you’ve left.
From its ground-floor tank for homeless fish and ore-bucket water sculpture known as the “Puking Pig,” to its rooftop Ferris wheel, 10-story spiral slide and ghostly pipe organ that plays tunes from “Phantom of the Opera,” City Museum is like no other. That fact was recognized in 2005 when the Project for Public Spaces declared the museum one of the “Great Public Spaces in the World.”
Every year City Museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. It has become almost as significant a tourist attraction as the city’s signature Gateway Arch and its world-renowned zoo, which appropriately features a sculpture of its most famous human, Marlin Perkins, crafted by Cassilly.
A Missouri native, Robert Cassilly Jr. was born on Nov. 9, 1949, and began creating sculptures at the age of 14. He was an independent, an anti-establishment iconoclast of the first order who could have stepped right from the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Even his death (on Sept. 26, 2011) was totally in character, as Cassilly was crushed by the overturned bulldozer he was driving (alone), moving earth to create a new St. Louis park called Cement Town.
Cassilly loved breaking the rules. He rejoiced, he once said, in creating spaces that “children love and parents hate.” That description certainly applies to City Museum and the way it encourages young visitors to run wild through its maze of caves, tunnels, slides and ladders. A classic example of Cassilly’s ability to cause parental panic is City Museum’s outdoor playground, MonstroCity. This spider web of metal mesh climbing tunnels leads young climbers on a merry chase that includes a pair of suspended jet planes and a fire engine. Look up and you’ll see a full-size school bus teetering precariously on the roof!
Inside there are wonders like the Jonah-sized cetacean sculpture known as “The Underground Whaleway,” the Every Day Circus School, a shoelace factory, a hallway built from St. Louis architectural discards and carnival artifacts, and that amazing circular slide that sends you spinning down all 10 stories.
While for children City Museum represents the ultimate funhouse, it also stands as an artistic tour de force, like Gaudi’s Guell Park in Barcelona or Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. They are creations that represent the triumph of imagination while celebrating (and advocating for) the myriad ways recycled materials — from blue jeans to architectural remnants — can be inventively incorporated to create something that is entirely new.
WHEN YOU GO
City Museum, 701 N. 15th St., St .Louis, MO, 63101
Hours: Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Children and adults $12. Friday and Saturday (after 5 p.m.) $10. Additional tickets are required for the Atop the City Ferris Wheel and the World Aquarium.
For more information: 314-231-2489 or visit www.citymusseum.org