At one point — I think it was about halfway through climbing the twisting warren of dark staircases and pipe organ parts that leads to the top of the 10-story slide — I turned to my husband and asked, incredulous, "Why the hell wasn't this place in American Gods?"
Opened in an abandoned shoe factory and warehouse in downtown St. Louis in 1997, The City Museum is not so much a museum as it is a massive, rambling fantasy playground. From the rooftop to the strange subterranean tunnels built beneath the lobby floor, sculptor Bob Cassilly and a team of 20 artisans have, bit by bit, created something truly wonderful. Imagine what might happen if somebody turned Maker Faire into a full-scale amusement park. That's The City Museum.
There's a 1940s ferris wheel creaking and groaning its way through a glorious, rooftop view of the city. There's a human gerbil trail that winds around the first floor ceiling, providing great spots to check out the intricate tile mosaic fish that swim across the floor. There are columns covered in gears, and columns covered in old printing press plates. There's a giant ball pit; two gutted airplanes suspended in midair; and so many chutes, and slides, and tunnels that, by the time you walk back to your car you will find yourself thoroughly conditioned into reflexively contorting yourself into every dark hole you happen to see. Also, there are bars. Also, there is almost entirely zero supervision.
And sure, okay, that alone is not really enough to justify including The City Museum on an imaginary map of important places of power. But here's the thing about the The City Museum: It is actually built out of the city. It is the city. And the city is ancient.
I'm not just talking about "ancient" in American terms. When European explorers showed up on the banks of the Mississippi in 1673, there was already a city at the site of St. Louis — a huge network of mounds and earthworks dating back to the 10th century. Much later, in the late 19th century, this was the location of the fourth largest city in the United States. People are drawn to St. Louis and they have always been drawn to St. Louis.
The last 100 years or so are an aberration in that pattern. But what's 100 years to a 1000-year-old city? Meanwhile, in that blip, The City Museum rises, literally built from the cast-off parts that other people left to rot. The welded metal and the glass mosaic; the ferris wheel and the airplanes; cement and rebar; an entire collection of beautiful, carved cornices and architectural details left over from the heyday of Euro-American St. Louis — it's all been salvaged from the dying city and pieced back together like a prayer.
Even the building itself is an altar to human development in this place. There were once Mississippian mounds scattered throughout the city of St. Louis. On the first floor of The City Museum, half inside the main building and half out, you can see what initially replaced them — a log cabin, a real one, dating to the early 1800s. It's a bar now. You can drink there. And on top of it all sits the symbol of the city's industrialization, power, and success in the form of the International Shoe Company factory and warehouse.
What's more, this temple seems to be accomplishing something, in the metaphorical cosmic sense. I know there are a lot of you who won't believe me, but St. Louis is no longer the wreck I, and many other Midwesterners, grew up thinking it was. Or, at least, it's not all a wreck. There is life here, and getting livelier. To get from the parking lot to The City Museum, we wandered through a part of downtown lit up with fancy lofts, unique stores, and people heading to parties, restaurants, and bars. In the South Grand and Tower Grove neighborhoods we found real, thriving city — brick homes rehabilitated, street parties underway, diverse crowds hanging out in a restaurant courtyard for an outdoor concert. There was block after block of cool stores, good food, and people who seem to really want to live in this place. Again. Because people come to St. Louis.
Bob Cassilly, the sculptor responsible for The City Museum, was a part of that revitalization. He started his career renovating and building townhouses in the city's decimated neighborhoods. The City Museum itself has been used as an anchor to develop the vibrant area we saw around it, and Cassilly apparently had a hand in or outright owned several residential and commercial projects nearby. When he died last year, he was in the process of turning an abandoned cement factory and construction dump on the city's still-impoverished north side into another whimsical attraction called Cementland.
The point to all of this: You need to go to The City Museum. Make it a Happy Mutant pilgrimage. It's one of the only tourist attractions I've ever been to that managed to live up to all the hype I'd heard before I got there. But, while you're at it, visit St. Louis, because the two things are one in the same, and even now she rises. (And, also, Neil Gaiman should really consider adding The City Museum into any planned American Gods sequels. I think I've made a pretty good case here.)
Some Tips for The City Museum:
• Go at night. Not just because there are fewer school groups to contend with and the bars are open. There's something about being in the dark here that makes the place even more awesome. It's open to 11 p.m. for a reason. Plus, they shut off the lights inside and give you a flashlight.
• Bring kneepads. You will look dumb. But I cannot stress enough how much of the experience you will spend on your hands and knees. And, while it may not seem this way most of the time, your 31-year-old knees are old. Really old. Really, really, really old. And prone to bruising.
• Leave anything you do not want to lose in the car. Do you have one of those little zippered bags on a lanyard that you're supposed to keep your passport in, under your clothes, when traveling in a foreign country? Bring that. Use it to hold some cash, your ID, and maaaaybe a cell phone. Maybe. You want your arms and hips unencumbered by purses, you want your butt free of oversized wallets, and you want anything that could fall out of your pockets already out of your pockets.
• Make a plan. You will end up separated from the people you came in with. You think you won't. But it's so easy. You go down the same hole, but you take a right turn and they think you took a left and the next thing you know you're both on different floors of the building. Or, say, your child crawls into something that you are pretty sure is too small for you to fit in and you have no idea where it leads, so you stand there freaking out while several childless adults nearby vacillate between wishing you would calm down and vicariously freaking out right along with you. I suggest synchronized watches and planned meeting points/times to regroup.
• Pay extra for the roof. Seriously, it's worth it. I can't speak to the aquarium, but it's supposed to have a walk-through shark tank and a stingray petting zoo. It's probably safe to assume that any upgrade is an upgrade worth paying extra for here.
• Don't learn too much about the place ahead of time. I am going to give you a link to the website, but you have to promise to use it wisely. And, by that, I mean, don't go to the "Attractions" tab and spoil the whole thing for yourself. Part of what makes this so awesome is the feeling of discovering something insanely wonderful and unexpected around every corner. Bonus: The sense that, even in three hours, you didn't see more than 1/3 of the place. If you go in with a plan of what you will find on which floor, where, I don't think it would be nearly as fun.
• Make friends with one of the people who live in the loft apartments on the 5th floor. And, when you have accomplished that, report back to me. I want to be friends with them, too.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.