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

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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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November 13, 2012 - 8:11am
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