Playground of Steel: Exploring the St. Louis City Museum

Gratitude, Mindfulness, and Travel Adventures
Women in Travel Summit 2015

City Museum exterior, St. Louis

Very rarely do I find a place that makes me literally squeal with delight. And I never expected to find it in St. Louis, of all places.

The city is a staple location for me. I have family there and, while I never lived there myself, growing up I would pay it a visit once every couple of years. Each visit we knocked out some of the typical destinations. We stood atop the St. Louis Arch, wandered the winding pathways of Grant’s farm, and ate dinner on the banks of the Mississippi.

On my most recent trip, I was ready for something new.

At my uncle’s suggestion, we decided to visit the City Museum. The name was perplexing, at first, because the city has a ton of museums. City Museum of what? Like most major cities, St. Louis has a Museum of Science, an Art Museum, and a Children’s Museum. Where does City Museum fit into this?

Turns out, City Museum is all science, art, child-friendly fun and a ton more, all rolled into one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.

One person’s trash is the city’s treasure…

Literally, it is a museum made up of recycled bits and pieces of the city. City Museum is a 600,000 foot wonderland, placed in an old shoe factory, that makes a valiant effort to save St. Louis’ history in one of the most unique ways possible.

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Old street plaques, turned into wall decorations.

The official website calls the Museum  “an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.” These objects — felled building stones, old street plaques, gargoyles, statues, salvaged bridges, abandoned school buses and planes — form the foundations of what has to be the world’s largest jungle gym.

That’s right, they turned the remains of the city’s past into a jungle gym.

It. Was. Awesome.

Clearly designed with kids in mind, the endless tunnels and slides are nevertheless accessible to adults and, being an avid climber, you may as well have dropped me in my own personal nirvana. Take a look at the outside of the building alone:

CityOutside

Everything you see there is climbable, right up to the airplane perched fifty feet or more in the air. And every piece of construction material, from tiles to chimneys, is gathered from within the municipality lines of St. Louis.

The inside of the building is just as chaotic, with tunnels and ladders tucked away, allowing visitors to drop beneath the floor, crawl into the walls, and generally act like five year olds.

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One very small piece of the inside.

How parents keep track of their children through the endless maze is beyond me. There were a few fully stocked bars tucked away in corners, so my guess is that they just settle in and have a few drinks to avoid the otherwise inevitable heart attack.

Quirky, Creative and Ingenuitive

Every single time I thought I had surely seen everything there was to see I rounded another corner and was met with another surprise.

Bank vault? Sure. Human-sized hamster wheel? Why not.

My brother and I have a go on the hamster wheel, after wandering through the bank vault.
My brother and I have a go on the hamster wheel, after wandering through the bank vault.

Ten-story slide through the façade of an old factory? Naturally.

Looking down as we climb to the top of the slide.
Looking down as we climb to the top of the slide.

Dragon cave? Absolutely.

Go ahead, crawl inside.
Go ahead, crawl inside.

The structure alone is a combined feat of architectural, engineering and artistic genius that boggles my mind. I can only imagine how much fun it must be to design a place like this, where your quirkiest and most unique ideas are brought to life, out of whatever scraps you can find.

Not just a playground

City Museum takes the age-old cabinets of curiosity idea to a whole new level. Beyond the eccentric, bizarre, and just plain fun, there is much to be learned. Exhibitions are tucked away in every possible corner, from an urban archaeology collection of chamber pots to an entire room dedicated to insect pinning.

City Museum Insect Pinning

There were only a few text panels to be seen, because the point was not to spend a lot of time reading, but rather to experience objects that painted a picture of day-to-day life in St. Louis’ past – from games of marbles to the doorknobs used in the average home to an old elevator.

A collection of doorknobs.
A collection of doorknobs from old buildings.

Those text panels that we did happen upon were brief, and added context to the objects, setting the scene of St. Louis’ past.

One of the few text panels, explaining an artifact's presence.
One of the few text panels, explaining an artifact’s presence.

Amid the indoor skate park (sans skates), the human-sized spinning tops and the live tightrope-walking shows, St. Louis’ history came to life. We were literally crawling all over the city’s past. Everything, down to the pillars in the bathroom, spoke of where St. Louis has been and the changes that it has seen over the years.

The building pillars, decorated with a combination of gears and marbles.
The building pillars, decorated with a combination of gears and marbles.

Even more impressive is the fact that this museum, much like the city itself, was still very much a work in progress. There were empty rooms and roped off sections labeled “New Stuff”, along with obvious signs of construction that pointed to future developments.

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Guidelines for visiting City Museum

As expansive and unique as it is, a trip to City Museum requires a little forethought. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but by the end of the trip I managed to make a little mental list of everything I would do to prepare next time (and there will definitely be a next time). Save yourself the trouble, and just follow my tips below:

Set aside a good chunk of time to explore

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A museum within a museum.

The City Museum currently consists of four floors, plus an outdoor area, filled to the brim with nooks and crannies available for exploration. We easily spent an entire afternoon there, and all we managed was to skim the surface. If you’re planning on visiting the City Museum, I recommend setting aside at least a solid three to four hours.

Bring knee pads, and maybe even a headlamp

For me, crawling through dark tunnels was half the fun, but I did run across a number of people donning headlamps so that they could see through the darker areas, particularly in the caves. More important than that, though, are knee pads. I’m almost thirty, and my knees are by no means down for the count, but they are definitely not up to the beating they took when I was younger. By the end of my trip to City Museum they were crying out for relief.

Most of the obstacles and tunnels in the Museum are made of metal or concrete. Metal and concrete do not make very soft padding, so if you know you want to explore the nooks and crannies, come prepared.

Wear good shoes, with decent tread

Much of the City Museum’s appeal is in visitor’s ability to interact with, well, everything. You could choose to sit on the sidelines (there are several restaurants, many benches, and even a full bar available), but where’s the fun in that? Crawl, jump, climb, run, and act like a five year old child. But come prepared. You do not want to try climbing to the top of a ten-story slide with stilettos on. Just saying.

Preferably your shoes should tie, too. While crossing one of the outdoor metal tunnels the young man in front of me, who was wearing slip-ons, actually got his shoe stuck. We had to work together to free him and get him turned around so that he could exit the tunnel.

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Helping wrestle the shoe off the poor guy in front of me.

Assign a designated meeting place

I found out very quickly that keeping my cell phone on me was a bad idea. It was way too easy for it to fall out of my pocket while I was contorting myself into an various positions, trying to crawl beneath a cement whale or through a tunnel so narrow that I had to slide on my back and pull myself along. In the interest of not dropping your cell phone fifty feet to its inevitable doom, leave it in the car or with a trusted friend who is not participating and arrange a time and place to meet. It’s a very easy place to get lost in, especially your first time.

Dress for both the inside and the outside

Because why on Earth would you visit without at least attempting to climb into an airplane hovering fifty feet in the air?

Come on, you know you want to.
Come on, you know you want to.

The day we visited was warm enough that I got by just fine without my jacket, but Missouri is not known for its temperate climate. Pack a jacket in the fall and spring months, and pack sunscreen in the summer. Don’t worry, if you bring a jacket and discover that you don’t need it there’s a coat check inside that you can use for a small fee.

Have an open mind and just soak it in

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Because where else do you see signs like this?

If you think that you’re too old for jungle gyms, or ten-story slides aren’t your thing, then this may not be the venue for you. This is the sort of place that demands a childlike sense of wonder, no matter how old you are. Explore, play, and experiment, all while learning about the city’s history.

Bob Cassilly, the artist to whom City Museum’s existence is credited, is quoted on their website as saying, “City Museum makes you want to know. The point is not to learn every fact, but to say, ‘Wow, that’s wonderful.’ And if it’s wonderful, it’s worth preserving.”

Well, Cassilly, it was definitely wonderful.

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Gratitude, Mindfulness, and Travel Adventures
Women in Travel Summit 2015
  • disqus_Vu1bnKaMdX

    ohmygosh, I was just recently telling a few people about the best-place-on-earth-otherwise-known-as-the-City-Museum (and I haven’t been in ~8 yrs!) I will concur that it is AMAZING and definitely worth a trip to St. Louis just to go here (although the other museums and the zoo are lovely too, for when your knees need a break!). When talking about potential New Years plans, my fiance jokingly suggested driving to the City Museum… and even though I knew that wasn’t possible, I checked the drive time anyway (15 hrs, boo!). I went to college in St Louis, and visited several times, but some of my friends only visited for the first time during a senior week trip! I have no idea how such an amazing place is so under the radar.

    • I know! I’ve been to St. Louis a number of times, and I have no idea how it snuck by me until this last trip. It’s definitely worth a lot more hype than it’s gotten. Thanks for commenting!

  • I can’t believe I’m saying this but you actually made me want to go to St. Louis with this blog post. Yeah, I know I already said this, but I really like that you blog about the atypical 🙂 Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading and commenting!

    • Thank you! Yeah, St. Louis isn’t the type of destination that sticks out on a lot of lists, but this museum has got to be the coolest thing I’ve seen in any city. They should just use it as their entire tourism campaign. 🙂

  • Cooooooool!!! Must. Go. Here.

    Shaun
    http://www.thislifeintrips.com

  • That looks totally amazing! I love quirky museums…and that looks like one of the best of the quirky!

    • It definitely took me by surprise! I’ve never seen such a cool concept before, and they really brought it to life. Thanks for the comment!