The City Museum: St. Louis' Happy Mutant wonderland

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.


  1. We got to visit this museum while at the FIRST Robotics Championship competition in April. It was a blast! I had no idea it was this cool when I read the written description in the program guide.

    Best of all, there’s a bar in the middle.

  2. Awesome to see this on boingboing!  We live about 3 hours from St. Louis and it is well worth the pilgrimage.  We’ve had a blast everytime we’ve been.  And yes the aquarium is pretty cool, and it seems its only a few bucks extra.

  3. 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
    Interesting places tend to come up from a wreck, become somewhat gentrified into interesting, hip Bohemia, and finally end up as sterile chain-restaurant and luxury condo hell as they become *too* gentrified. And eventually they become wrecks again. It’s the cycle of life.

  4. St. Louis is still very much a city in flux, trying to figure out what is. The late Bob Cassilly gave a lot of us some pretty damn good inspiration to try and continue to pull it out of flux and give it some personality. The City Museum is one of the coolest places you can visit pretty much anywhere. Nothing there goes unused…if it fails it’s repurposed. When you visit STL carve out the time to spend the day here. It’s fantastic.

  5. Such a great place; we visited in 2006 for a family wedding and the kids and the adults all had a blast.  The SF Bay Area, where I live, doesn’t have anything that is as cool.

  6. We were there with a curious five-year old this summer. It is hard to describe just how awesome it was for him. There are a million places that are really only for little kids and I think he found them all. At one point he was in a tunnel under the gift shop while we were expecting him to come out of a tree we’d seen him go up.

    BTW, if you are one of those parents who needs to know where the kid is and what the kid is up to at all times, either don’t go to this place, or be able to fit everywhere a five-year old can and be as quick as a five-year old. Otherwise, it is impossible.

    1. Compared to big fancy aquaria like the Shedd in Chicago or the big one in Long Beach, CA, the City Mus. one is pretty small, but like the rest of the place it looks like the creation of a slightly mad hobbyist, and therin lies the charm. This is an amazing institution, perhaps mostly because it doesn’t insist on teaching any valuable lessons to impressionable children.

  7. it’s a little ‘disorienting’…at first.  There’s all this amazing stuff and not only can you touch it (unlike a museum), you’re encouraged to climb in/on it and explore… it takes a while to get over that… let your guard down and become like a kid again… oh, look, a hole in the wall with a metal tunnel going out the fourth floor and leading to an airplane suspended from the roof… let’s go!

  8. I’m a huge fan of the City Museum, I really miss it since moving away from St. Louis. One more tip: Take some wax paper with you and sit on it going down the slides, it’ll give you some real oomph.

  9. If you befriend one of the artists working on the machines, ask if you can borrow a mop-head for going down the slides – it makes it extra-terrifying!

  10. Everything in this article is true – the city museum is one of the coolest things in the world. Stop reading now, open a new tab and begin making travel arrangements. 

  11. Visited the place on two separate occasions while visiting friends in STL.  Fun times were had by all.

  12. One of the MOST VISIT places whenever friends come to town.  Even as an adult I love this place!  Late weekend evenings tend to get crowded with teens.  Nice to play in the Fall too – the steel on the outside of the building gets a tad warm.  Forget about tracking/following your kids – just have a time/place to meet and enjoy!

  13. St. Louisan here.  The World Aquarium inside of the City Museum is also incredible.  The behind the scenes tour is the best.

  14. I think perhaps I’m just being sentimental, but I grew up in St. Louis. I live in Seattle now and for the foreseeable future, but my heart and my roots are in the Lou. There is a magic to the city that I’m spoiled on, and perhaps it’s just because I was raised there and my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were as well, but considering that mostly these days the news I see about it is troubling (imagine being from Todd Akin’s district this year. Gross) seeing all these bits and bobs crop up on BB is really exciting.

    I miss the city terribly, but I also don’t expect there to be a lot for me there right now as a professional creative. It’s in recovery but it’s not booming. There has never been a doubt in my mind that I will go back though. If only to be back in a city that appreciates its baseball team.

    The City Museum is a perfect place. There’s absolutely nothing like being at the top of a 40 foot ferris wheel on the roof of an 11 story building at night. You can see Purina and downtown and Forest Park. If you really want to feel as though you’ve made a terrible decision, climb the wire armatures 30 feet up in the air. Nothing gets your heart racing faster. 

    Though word for the wise— If you’re planning to do this as your bachelorette party, make sure your bridesmaids don’t have short dresses. You get pretty bruised up.

    (And if you’re wondering, fellow St Louisans, it’s KHS)

  15. The St. Louis City Museum was like finally reaching heaven! The question you’ll ask yourself, of course, as you stagger along drunkenly, four stories above the ground, along coiled wire scaffolding from plane chassis to plane chassis, gin and tonic in hand, tiny children swarming about you like rats, is how anyone ever managed to insure the place!

  16. LOVE that place! Last time I was there, which was unfortunately about a decade ago, we got drinks at the bar, then hit the skatepark, and had a belly dancer perform for us. Great time every time.

  17. This showed up after I moved away to job prospects in Seattle. It has been a must do according to the offspring every visit back to see the parental units. Not that I mind going, 10 story slide! Though last visit was a Sunday and they closed at 5pm but we did get to explore the roof as it was open and get a ride on the ferris wheel, ON THE ROOF!

    And yes be very comfortable with losing sight of your kid they will just go off and have fun. Note there are staff to keep unattended kids from getting out of the specific area you are in so they can’t wander too far.

  18. One of the best things about the City Museum is that it is always under construction. We probably go every other month, and every single time there is something new, or something that I was looking forward to that is caution-taped off. I hope they get the man-sized pneumatic-powered Rock’em Sock’em Robots back out soon. 

    You definitely should have taken in one of the circus shows and mentioned it. Every couple hours there is a performance of either a local youth-circus acrobatic show, or jugglers, or magicians, or somesuch, and they are really really good.

    One of the other things I try to take a look at every few weeks is Bissel Autobody on Choteau street. They’ve got a a junk lot full of Vietnam era jets and helicopters in various states of disrepair. A couple F-105’s, an S-3, and the forward fuselage of a B-52, just sitting on the grass on an industrial side street.

  19. Thanks for this. St. Louis only seems to get any press when someone famous passes through or one of our sports ball teams are winning. It’s a cool town with a lot of hidden gems like this one. I love living here. 

  20. A St. Louisian here who loves City Museum… but frankly I think the aquarium sucks.  When I visited it last, some of the tanks weren’t even clean and there were sea turtles without anywhere near enough space.

    Go to the St. Louis Zoo instead during summer if you can, when they have the rays and sharks you can pet.

    Everything else about City Museum though is fantastic!

  21. I’ve been there a couple of times, and the aquarium was well worth the extra coinage both times. Amazing place. Plus, Sydney Padua used the pipe organ in the shoe factory slide area in her comic, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage in the “Organist” storyline. 

  22. We held our main reception for the 2011 NASIG Conference ( ) at the City Museum. Essentially we turned 300+ librarians loose in the Museum for several hours on a Saturday night. So much fun! The best part? Watching my colleagues compare bruises the next morning and talk about which slide they liked best. :) *Everyone* had a good time (even the doubters). Definitely worth looking at if you want to host an event. It will be memorable, and in a good way.

  23. one of my favorite places EVER. i think every city should encourage places like this. it’s the closest thing i can think of to what burning man spirit feels like to me outside of being at burning man.

  24. This is where my St. Louis Native husband and I held our wedding reception. On a Sunday evening, following an afternoon ceremony at the Missouri Botanical Garden, we had the run of the entire museum (minus the aquarium and the not-yet-built roof). In the wedding invitations, we encouraged our guests to bring a change of clothes “Khakis go down the slides faaaaast!” 
    Some folks believed us and were adequately prepared, others decided to risk their clothing. Nobody really sat out but the not-yet-crawling baby… but even then, the lights and sound must have been magnificent. My uncle and college buddy went crawling through the under-floor tunnels and popped their heads through while cake was being served, Parents and friends climbed through the habitrails, zoomed down the slides. Grandparents walked in wonder of the bones of a a city that they once knew, touched it, and stepped back in time. 

    I love this place. It is a part of me. And I, too, have always felt like it belonged in American Gods. It is a place of reverent madness, somehow solid and real, a physical delirium in a city that hasn’t forgotten how to dream. 

  25. Two things:

    1) The City Museum is a lot like what a tour of the Willy Wonka factory might be (Gene Wilder version).

    Seriously, we would just be walking along, and my kid would jump down a random hole in the wall, and I wouldn’t find him for an hour.

    It was unsafe in the best sense of the word.

    2) I don’t swear much, but at one point during our visit, I turned to a guy who worked there, looked him in the eye, and said, “This place is fucking amazing!”

    I’m a total suburban-dad-type-guy, and I had this wild-eyed grin on my face. It was the best museum (attraction? it somewhat defies single word definitions) I’ve ever been to.

  26. I have lived in St Louis most of my life, and can confirm that, yes, the City Museum is AWESOME.

    Hey, you there, yes, you — the one who’s reading this right now. What are you waiting for? Get tickets to STL right now, and come see it for yourself!

  27. Is the bus still hanging out over the edge?  Haven’t been there for a coupla of years.  That would be a twisted place for a spook house.

    1. yes, the bus is still there hanging off the roof… I haven’t been since the roof was opened… but according to their website, you can actually get in the bus!

  28. ‘ I turned to my husband and asked, incredulous, “Why the hell wasn’t this place in American Gods?”‘

    Having been to both City Museum and House on the Rock, I couldn’t agree more.

  29. If you think that place is cool imagine what Bob had planned for the enormous former cement plant he was working on at the time of his (untimely) death last year. It was several acres of buildings and hills and tunnels and sculptures. I saw it in its construction phase and it sits unfinished due to legal turmoil of his estate between his former business partners and his widow. It’s unfortunate. Bob was cool enough to let me shoot a series of live music videos after hours at City Museum you can see them here:

  30. I’ve lived in St. Louis since the 1980’s, and it’s more fun and more artistically vibrant than I have ever seen it. Even five years ago I made fun of the resident boosters, but now I’m happy to be one of them. Also, this article undersells The City Museum. The English language may not contain enough superlatives to praise the place properly, but the reviewer could have tried harder. ;^D

  31. Husband and I went to the museum not long after it opened. There weren’t a lot of other people around most of the time, and there was a lot of empty space. We were both fascinated by an area with live glass blowing in progress, and a large corner with heaps of architectural pieces basically in open storage. We roamed around looking at pillars and cornices and pieces and metal and doors and … I don’t even know. Some had labels indicating what building they came from, but by and large, we weren’t even sure we were supposed to be in that area.

    It was awesome.

  32. I live down the street from the City Museum, and it’s true! You cannot accurately describe the incredible amazingness of this place. Hint to those 21+: go on Friday or Saturday nights.  They are open til midnight or 1am,  There are also 2 bars, one in the log cabin on the main floor, and another hidden in the middle of the place (I won’t say where…its more fun to find it after crawling, jumping and sliding around for a couple hours, thirsty and in desperate need of a frosty PBR). St. Louis is often under-appreciated by both outsiders and it’s own residents, so it’s wonderful to see this great press about the city I love!

    1.  “…in desperate need of a frosty Schlafly”


      (Sheesh, and I’m not even from STL. No offense intended, just some friendly ribbing.)

  33. Certainly on my list of places to frequently (as possible) revisit. Friends of mine did their wedding and reception there a while back. Best. Wedding. Ever. (And I hate weddings.)

  34. City Museum is great. My kids love the place, and I have plenty of fun chasing them around. Warning, watch your head in the caves. Smacked my head plenty. My brother and his wife had their wedding there as well as the reception. They rented the vault room floor all evening. Fun time for all.

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