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11 Awesomely Unexpected Things in St. Louis’s City Museum

It’s hard to describe St. Louis’s City Museum to people who haven’t been there, but calling it a giant playground is a good place to start. The 600,000 square foot building, formerly home to the International Shoe Factory, was purchased in 1995 by Bob Cassilly (who died last year while creating a new, similarly whimsical tourist attraction, Cementland). The classically-trained sculptor set out to make a funhouse for young and old out of unique, reclaimed objects found within the city’s municipal borders. Today, the museum accepts things from all over. “As we have grown we have had greater opportunities presented to us of stuff from outside St. Louis,” says museum director Rick Erwin III. “If you have something cool you want to give us, I’m not going to say no just because it’s not from St. Louis. Cool stuff is cool stuff.”

The museum space is based on repetition, solid lines, curves, and colors. "People will call and say, 'Hey, do you want a vacuum cleaner?'" Erwin says. "I'll say, 'No. Do you have a thousand vacuum cleaners? I'll take that. I want a lot of stuff!'" They hate dead ends and columns, and built a full-scale bowhead whale for their first floor. Because the museum is constantly finding things and accepting donations, the space is always growing and changing. The newest space is a series of tunnels underneath the building, a giant indoor treehouse, and a slide that goes into the museum's pump room. Erwin calls it "The Fungeon."

The collection includes cranes, old bridges, a human-sized hamster wheel, vintage opera posters, a room of preserved insects, a bank vault, a fish tank full of turtles (and one very friendly 39-pound catfish), and at least one alien dressed like Elvis in a coffin—all accessible via stairs, elevator, tunnel, or slide. (The museum also houses an aquarium and an old-fashioned shoelace-making facility.) "It was all Bob's idea," Erwin says. "People think I made him up." A sign outside reads: “The City Museum is full of creativity, adventure, and learning … and is fraught with DANGER. Enter at your own risk!”

So basically, it’s the coolest—and most entertaining—place on Earth. Here are just 11 of the many awesome things you’ll find at the City Museum.

1. The 10-Story Slide

The International Shoe Company didn’t have freight elevators, so workers sent shoes to different floors on chutes. “Workers would stop the shoes when they saw their size, switch shoes and then send their old shoes down,” Erwin says. Cassilly and company converted the chutes into a dizzyingly fun spiral slide that deposits visitors in the museum’s caves. (There's also a 5-story slide.)

2. Two Planes

“The story goes that we purchased them after the flood of 1993,” Erwin says. “One of them belonged to Wayne Newton.” Now, the planes are part of the museum's MonstroCity; visitors can crawl through a series of wire tubes and explore the interior of the planes.

3. Big Eli

This 30-foot-high Ferris wheel, which was manufactured in 1940, was found in a barn. "It used to be on a flatbed, so it's actually safer up here," Erwin says. Before it was put on the roof, it was fully restored.

4. A School Bus

To create the museum's exhibits, a team of artisans will often cut through the building’s floors or hoist objects up the side of the building—sometimes without permits, as they did with this school bus, donated by the Roxana School District, that overhangs the roof. "You can actually make it bounce," Erwin says. "It's on hydraulics. We spent a lot of money proving that it's safe." Also on top of the building: a giant praying mantis sculpture created by Cassilly; a pair of Beluga whale sculptures placed to look like they’re swimming; a dome with a rope swing; and a splash pond. (There were plans to put a water park on the roof—including a slide down the side of the building—but unfortunately the building couldn’t support the weight of the water.) Everything is constructed by the in-house team.

5. The World’s Largest Pencil …

This 76-plus foot, 21,500 pound No. 2 pencil was made and donated by Ashrita Furman, who is currently the world record holder of the most world records. It contains 4000 pounds of graphite and is the equivalent of 1,900,000 regular pencils. If you could lift it, you could write with it—and its 250 pound rubber eraser can do its job, too. "It took a crane to get this into the building," Erwin says. "It was in two pieces."

6. … And The Largest Pair of Underpants

These 7-foot-tall tighty-whiteys once went missing from the museum’s walls. "They just disappeared one day," Erwin says. "We vowed that we would go commando until they showed up." They reappeared 3.5 weeks later, freshly laundered.

7. Fiberglass

Those things that look like icicles hanging from the City’s first floor ceiling? It’s actually fiberglass donated by Boeing. "It's the same stuff you wrap around the outside of an airplane," Erwin says.

8. Cooling Tube

This cooling tube, located on the museums's first floor, came from St. Louis-based brewery Anheuser-Busch. "It used to be inside the beer [tank], to keep the beer cold," Erwin says. Now, visitors can climb up it to other floors of the museum.

9. The Puking Pig


This is a boiler expansion tank, with the face of a pig, that’s bolted to the back end of a 1899 fire truck. Every 90 seconds, the tank fills with water and tips—which makes the pig look like it’s puking.

10. Pipe Organ

This organ was built in 1924 for the Rivoli Theater in New York City. It's been fully restored and is now operated with an electronic console.

11. Cross

This cross came from the east wing of the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis. That's where, in the 1940s, the exorcism that inspired the novel and film The Exorcist took place. "The story goes that during the exorcism, the cross was struck by lightning," Erwin says. "This became very famous in the last year or so. People want to sleep under it. It's a little weird."

BONUS! Stuff they have that’s not on display … yet.

The Museum is constantly expanding and tweaking its space as it gets new stuff. Currently, the world's largest tennis racket—also built by Furman, it measures 50 feet, 3.01 inches long by 16 feet, 8.6 inches wide—is sitting in storage, just waiting for a place in the museum. And there's more: Various cast iron store fronts from St. Louis, thousands of glass bottles, 50,000 paver bricks, a merry-go-round, an airplane, neon signs, corbels from Chicago Union Passenger Depot, and, says Erwin, "so much terra cotta that we could build an addition."

Have you been to the City Museum? If so, what's your favorite part? What cool treasures did we leave out?

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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