The United States certainly has its share of quirky museums. For example, there’s the Museum of Bad Art in Somerville, MA, and the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. However, perhaps none is at once more grand and idiosyncratic than City Museum in St. Louis. The traditional name conjures up visions of sedate visitors contemplating stately artworks. But no, City Museum is something very different. It is at once eccentric, stimulating, and highly immersive.
“Museum Mania!” was the title of a May 2009 cover story in Delta Airlines’ in-flight magazine, and in its list of must-see museums, both the City Museum and Chicago’s Field Museum made the top 10. A year later, the City Museum attracted more than 700,000 visitors. The Delta Airlines article aptly described City Museum as an “eccentric work of whimsy that will awaken the 10-year-old in anyone who crosses its threshold.”
Read on to learn more about the origins of this beloved St. Louis institution.
Origins of a Unique Idea
How did this playground for kids and kids-at-heart come to be? In a word, “Cassilly.” Accomplished sculptor Bob Cassilly, that is. He was an artist’s artist and a visionary. One friend described him as “creative lightning.”
In the 1980s he made quite a name for himself sculpting giant animals and sea creatures. For example, he crafted a 50-foot giant squid for the St. Louis Zoo and a 67.5-foot giraffe for the Dallas Zoo. Word was that Cassilly extended the tongue from the giraffe’s mouth an extra few inches. That made the piece top out a smidge higher than the state’s 67-foot statue of Sam Houston. In the race to be the tallest sculpture in Texas, the giraffe won, not by a nose, but by a tongue!
From Warehouse to Museum
In the early nineties, Cassilly’s attention turned to a century-old St. Louis property once owned by the International Shoe Company. He used funds from commissioned artworks to buy buildings now held by Washington University. The price? Sixty-nine cents per square foot. This was not as inexpensive as you might think. The century-old warehouse and office building needed work—in fact, leaks moistened some of the floorboards to the point that mushrooms grew among them.
Still, it was a time to celebrate the big purchase. Bob and his wife Gail did so by rollerblading through the cavernous confines. Then, they got to work. For years, an entourage of welders, sculptors, carpenters, and painters labored in secret. The “Cassilly Crew” jokingly embraced their mission as creating the “impossible for the insane.”
Sometimes, rules and regulations threatened to derail the quest, but the iconoclastic sculptor and his team prevailed, time and again. Consider the time when the city required a fence around the property. Cassilly rejected the idea of something so banal as a chain-link fence, so he crafted a 500-foot serpent instead. More than 1,700 wrought iron spikes poked through its hollow concrete torso to form the required fencing.
One day, Jack Danforth, a United States Senator from Missouri, visited the work-in-progress. He was so impressed that his foundation donated $250,000 to the cause. There was one stipulation, however. Cassilly had to register the place as a children’s museum. He agreed, and his wife Gail became the director. The energetic artist celebrated with yet another giant sculpture—a 40-foot whale.
City Museum Opens to the Public
The doors opened to the public on New Year’s Eve, 1996, when the Cassillys’ children welcomed a curious throng. In 1997, Circus Harmony moved into the facility. The acclaimed social circus features jugglers, acrobats, clowns, and magicians. The year 1997 also marked the arrival of “The World’s Largest Underpants.” This is an exhibit that has since spawned its very own fan club in Canada.
Soon, however, Bob grew weary of the requirements accompanying non-profit organizations. He rebelled, using some of the property to create what he dubbed an “Anti-City Museum.” What eventually emerged was a for-profit museum with much broader branding. Along the way, mysterious anonymous contributions arrived. One was a collection of fossils that included a 37-foot-long Tarbosaurus bataar.
City Museum Attractions
To this day, City Museum remains a crazy kaleidoscope of the offbeat, strange, and downright weird.
“Skateless Park” features ropes and climbers surrounding the world’s largest working pencil. A one-eighth-size train takes children of the proper height on a trek through the solar system. You’ll find historic St. Louis architecture on the 3rd floor. On the fourth floor, a stained glass creation entitled “Mayhem on Ice” pays homage to the St. Louis Blues. The 11,000 square foot Artquarium is a work-in-progress. Watch the fish as you climb over and under the tanks. There’s also a giant septopus—an octopus that came up a leg short.
Outdoors, MonstroCity conjures up visions of a Mad Max sequel. It is an ingenious aggregation of salvaged steel and stone. MonstroCity has the distinction of being the nation’s largest outdoor sculpture. There’s a sky-high jungle gym complemented by two well-anchored airplanes.
The roof is far more than protection for what lies beneath. A school bus cantilevers out from the edge, appearing to defy gravity. You’ll also find a “Big Eli” Ferris wheel, a product of the Eli Bridge Company of Jacksonville, Illinois. Secured to the pinnacle of a former planetarium dome is the “Praying Mantis,” a 3,000-pound Cassilly sculpture. According to St. Louis Magazine, Cassilly, without safety gear, rode his 24-foot creation skyward as a crane hoisted it to the roof.
It’s been said that a visit to the City Museum is like rattling around in the brain of the eclectic artist himself. Visitors journey to that special place in the mind that defiantly refuses to relinquish the wide-eyed wonder of childhood. The museum’s many oversized works reflect Cassilly’s genius. They invoke the magic inherent in seeing the adult world from a little person’s perspective.
Make Plans to Visit
City Museum is at 750 North 16th Street in St. Louis. In March 2021, St. Louis’s “most visited rooftop” re-opened. City Museum is an epic exercise in creativity that pays dividends for residents and visitors alike. Some intrepid travelers take day trips out of Chicago, and beyond. It’s wise to set aside a good four-to-six for the experience.
About Draper and Kramer
Draper and Kramer is a family-operated real estate firm founded in Chicago in 1893 that manages several luxury apartment properties near City Museum in St. Louis. Hampton Gardens is in the historic and charming Hill District, west of the Missouri Botanical Garden. EVO Living is in Richmond Heights, nine miles west of downtown St. Louis
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