Sunday, June 10, 2012

City Museum, St. Louis, MO

The entrance to City Museum and MonstroCity.
When I was six years old my parents took me to Chicago to audition for a movie. I'm not sure why; I doubt I exhibited any particular acting ability. I did not get the part.  And my brief dalliance with showbiz ended as quickly as it had begun. 

For me, the high point of the trip was visiting Chicago's Field Museum. Though I remember little about my time with the casting agent, I clearly remember seeing the museum from the car and walking inside for the first time. All the way to Chicago I had been promised dinosaurs if I behaved myself at the audition. And though the dinosaurs didn't come to life like they later would in Night at the Museum, I absolutely loved it,  asking my parents when we were going back as soon as we left.

I've visited a lot of museums since then. From the tiny Dickson Mounds behind my childhood home, to the Art Institute of Chicago, where I briefly worked, to British Museum in London, where an inquisitive Londoner heard my Chicago accent and asked me if I was a gangster like Al Capone (I said I was). But I would have to say one of my favorites has to be City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Harry and Jack climbing in MonstroCity
Built inside the former International Shoe Company and constructed with reclaimed and re-purposed industrial materials City Museum is one of the most creative uses of space I've ever seen. Jenni and I took our boys for a visit on a very hot and steamy Memorial Day Weekend to celebrate the end of another school year. 

Designed by local artist Bob Cassilly and a team of artists City Museum feels like art in action, like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids turned their junkyard into an attraction and started selling tickets. Opened in 1997 the museum has been added to every year since, thrilling up to 600,00 visitors per year. Everywhere we turned there was something unexpected; tunnels to climb through, multistory slides, ramps to run up and down, and outside, with MonstroCity, the largest jungle gym I've ever climbed.

While we stared at the giant whale on the first floor listening to water rushing from somewhere (the "Puking Pig"), a blue-shirted guide came over and explained the museum to us. He pointed out the details in the hand sculpted caves before us, directed our attention to the enormous mosaic floor we were standing on, and reassured us that we would not lose our wrist banded children in the multitude of tunnels above, below and around us. We did not feel reassured. "You can even come back tonight, when we have the lights turned out. We're open til midnight."

With that, our boys climbed a refrigeration coil up into the ceiling and promptly disappeared. And though I didn't see any other middle aged parents doing this, I quickly followed them. I was later offered an encouraging "Way to go, Old Guy." from a smarty pants 30 feet beneath me as I climbed to the top of the dome on the roof. 

I'm not a fan of small confined spaces, certainly not dark ones, nor can I remember enjoying climbing on rebar welded high above a picnic area, but as we worked our way around the museum again and again, we became acclimated with the layout of the museum and its charms inside and out. By noon we were old pros.

Looking up inside the Enchanted Caves
Brad and his mortal coil.
Our favorite section was probably the Enchanted Caves, dark and cool in the morning, filled with ominous music from a Wurlitzer pipe organ. (Later in the day it filled with teenagers looking for a remote place to do what teenagers like to do.) Jenni and I climbed up the meandering metal stairs and watched the boys climb in and out of holes and slide down chutes that once sent shoes to the loading dock.    
On the outside of the building, MonstroCity, constructed of rebar and pieces of cranes, featuring airplane cockpits, a fire engine and a stone tower was probably a close second. The boys and I climbed and scurried through one rebar tunnel after another, our sweat sticking to us in the mid-morning haze and probably dripping onto the furious dodgeball players in the ball pit below. We tried to find different ways to get to various slides and high points until sliding back down to the snack bar for more water. While climbing I finally encountered a couple of brave adults climbing on the ever warming metal bars, which made me feel good, some reckless tweens, who scared me, and one seemingly lost three year old that concerned me till I found his dad.
Though it hadn't been part of the plan, we paid the additional 5 bucks to visit the roof. And I'm glad we did. The roof area, 'Atop the City' was great fun. It featured a school bus dangling over the edge of the building, which the boys jumped in and looked out of, a Splash pond, a small working Ferris wheel and rope swing in the middle of a metal dome. More slides and more rebar to climb. We spent about an hour on the roof, Harry swinging from the rope at the center of the dome, the boys and I climbing to the top of the dome through a cage built into the wall and ceiling and riding on the Ferris Wheel.

Thankfully we did more exploring inside after that, visiting the Skateless park on the third floor where the boys ran up and down the skateboard ramps and walked around Beatnik Bob's and its assortment of midway oddities. I was able to talk the boys out of riding the toddler size train as well as out of visiting Toddler Town itself. We walked past Circus Harmony which features circus performers plying their trade, but save one juggler there wasn't much going on. The vintage clothing store, the Baleout, on the fourth floor just reminded the boys of their grandparent's house, so we didn't have so much as an espresso from the hipsters hanging out there. I expect the boys have about 15 years before vintage will take on any allure for them. I pounded out a few boogie-woogie riffs on the ancient and supposedly haunted baby grand piano near the stairs, which was fun. The boys have about 5 years until that becomes embarrassing to them.

We broke for lunch at a local restaurant and returned to do it all over again later in the afternoon, finding new nooks and cranies to explore until Jenni and I finally had to put a weary foot down and drag the boys back to the hotel for some rest. We did not return for the lights out version of the museum.

I'd have liked to visit some of the more static exhibits but I'll have to save that for another time. On the way home I was treated to, "When are we going back to the museum." So, I'm sure we'll all be back to do it all again.

Brad feeling big headed.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely symmetrical tree. Nature is symmetrical of course, as Leonardo Da Vinci, who knew a thing or two about symmetry, showed in this beautiful drawing, . It can be ordered as a canvas print from