“I don’t really know how to describe this next place,” says my hostess in St. Louis. I look to my right and see a large industrial building with a school bus jutting from and a ferris wheel sitting upon the roof. Whatever this is, it’s not going to be much like anything I’ve seen before, anywhere. It looks like a factory with the bodies of jet planes covered in wire and plastic rings making a slide for children at a height of 8 or 9 stories.
This is City Museum, a collection of cast offs and architectural details from buildings long torn down. Inside it is a beehive of activity. It is a former shoe factory. There is a section where outlandish yellow and orange shoe laces are made. On the third floor there is a circus school where the students can learn to juggle, walk the high wire and do acrobatics. There is also someone teaching clowning skills, picking up a student and walking behind them as though the person before the teacher is a wheelbarrow. In another space, called Art City, is a fellow teaching eager learners to sculpt clay into prehistoric monsters.
“You can sit and take some clay and make your own monsters,” says the teacher, without missing a stroke to his hand crafted dinosaur. A floor below there are sculpted whales and other creatures of the deep, just across the floor are architectural details from buildings all over the city of St. Louis and, indeed other places as well.
In 1997 City Museum opened in a building which was originally a shoe factory. It was the idea of Bob Cassilly, an artist who made sculptures of large animals for various sites across America. Cassilly was very coy about explaining what he had in mind to anyone. He never really explained himself. But he began putting architectural details and created whales and other creatures on the first three floors of the shoe factory.
The Museum is a for profit place and charges a $12 admission for the public to come and gawk at these sights, on one wall are relief pictures of insects made of watch bands, in another place is an aquarium, in another corner is the circus arts school. It is ultimately a museum which caters to Cassilly’s eccentric imagination. It is a wonder, a marvel of the imagination.
I discovered that there is something wonderfully bizarre which happens to the mutual creative processes of the spectator and the mind of the artist. Museum director, Rick Erwin said, “Bob was so charismatic and he was so well read that once he started talking that he could just light up everything.” Cassilly decided he wanted to create the museum for reasons which he alone understood.
It is a monument to his imagination. Like the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, which is a tribute to the vision of is founder, City Museum is unique. Nothing like it exists anywhere else. Bob died last year, but the museum goes on. I asked Rick Erwin what he and his staff want people to take away from the Museum. He replied, “We never think about that. We are simply trying to remain true to Bob’s vision.” This is certainly a peculiar idea, but somehow it works. Peculiar is a good word to describe the space.
Entering the space, it can be solemn and quiet or noisy with the sounds of squealing children. The first time I entered it I saw the employee taking tickets throwing a ball toward a sculpture of a giant whale. He was interrupted and came and was quite happy to place a paper band around my wrist allowing me to enter the space. He then resumed his game. Somehow, this was emblematic of the Museum, it’s a place where individuality and eccentricity is celebrated.
Cassilly bought the International Shoe Factory for $.69 a square foot in 1983 a remarkably cheap price for a site with 250,000 square feet of floor space. It is a ten story building with the Museum on the first three floors and condominiums above it. It is listed on the Project for Public Spaces “Great Public Spaces of the World” since 2005. In 2002 financial obligations forced the Museum to start charging an admission fee and a $5 parking charge. The parking lot sign read “Greedy Bob’s Parking Lot.”