A cave-dwelling dragon. A rooftop playground. Multi-story spiral slides. You might expect to see these attractions at a theme park or a children’s play area, but at City Museum in St. Louis they’re part of a grand experiment in teaching adults how to be kids again.
City Museum is named after the building’s relationship to St. Louis. Housed in what used to be the International Shoe Factory distribution center, the massive concrete structure proved to be the perfect place to showcase art and architecture from around the St. Louis area. Many of the attractions are made from found, upcycled and repurposed materials from other buildings around the city that have since been demolished.
In fact, part of the museum’s third floor serves as Architectural Hall, which currently is showcasing works by renowned architects Louis Sullivan and George Grant Elmslie. Throughout the building, other unique historical pieces are on display, like the cross from the hospital that inspired the movie “The Exorcist” and a dragon that was part of a pagoda from St. Louis’ first theme park, Forest Park Highlands.
There’s much more to see and do at City Museum than look at the architecture, though. One of the museum’s main attractions is an elaborate outdoor jungle gym called MonstroCity on the roof. Made of twisted metal cages and coils, vehicle parts, abandoned planes and slides, the structure certainly looks monstrous. The idea is to take visitors to new heights — literally — and let them explore something outside their comfort zone through climbing and crawling.
“I think the No. 1 reason (visitors) come is because their friends tell them to come,” museum director Rick Erwin says. “... We’re giving you the options to do things you would do as a kid that you can’t do in regular society.”
Mr. Erwin explains that the museum is meant to be something every person can enjoy, no matter their age. Parents are encouraged to climb the coils and go down the slides with their kids instead of watching from the sidelines. Even grandparents make connections with the museum when they recognize architectural pieces from the city’s past incorporated into the displays.
“We don’t force any education on anybody, it’s just here and it has to be found,” Mr. Erwin says, noting that they stopped handing out maps both to reduce waste and to encourage independent exploration.
In the heart of the museum is a maze of “enchanted” underground caves, complete with crystals and eerie creature sculptures. Giant slides positioned throughout the building pay homage to the shoe company’s original shoe shafts, which served as a quick way to send shoes from the top floor to the bottom. A life-sized walk-through whale and underwater scene clues visitors into exploring another of the museum’s main attractions, the World Aquarium. Daily circus performances occur on the third floor as part of the Circus Harmony group. The Skateless Park encourages visitors to run, jump and climb on skateboard ramps meant for shoes instead of wheels.
Even with all these unique features, City Museum still isn’t done adding new attractions to its lineup.
“Nothing’s ever finished here, we’re always adding,” Mr. Erwin says.
Future plans in the works include another new slide, a castle with a bridge that will lead around MonstroCity and a Ferris wheel that will stick out an upper floor window. Although museum additions sometimes can take years to complete, the final results are worth the wait.
“There’s all sorts of hidden gems. ... We’re not your traditional white box museum,” he says.
City Museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $12 plus tax for ages 3 and up, and $10 plus tax on Friday and Saturday evenings after 5 p.m. MonstroCity requires an additional $5 ticket, and World Aquarium is an extra $7.95. Visitors should wear long pants and close-toed shoes. To learn more, go to www.citymuseum.org or call (314) 231-CITY (2489).