“If you build it, they will come.” That paraphrase of the voice Kevin Costner heard in his Field of Dreams more than twenty-five years ago has become the mantra of great development successes, and the bane of endeavors gone bust. But nowhere is it more apt than at City Museum, where building is an endless pursuit to create endless delight.
There’s a complicated story here. A genius, Robert Casilly Jr, purchased a bargain behemoth, the Johnson Shoe Warehouse in Saint Louis’s garment district, for 30 cents a square foot in the 1990’s. An ugly divorce led Casilly to build outside the structure when he wasn’t allowed within the walls. A non-profit museum running a million dollars in the red turned into a for-profit enterprise operating in the black.
Rick Erwin, Executive Director, came to City Museum ten years ago and worked with Bob Casilly until the founder died in 2011. Rick keeps the sprit of the place the same. “When we were a non-profit we had to be ‘educational.’ Now, we can do what we want. We are the reward place. This is where kids get to go for selling the most Girl Scout cookies or getting the most merit badges.”
I’ve never been anyplace quite like City Museum – and neither have you. The organizing sign at the ticket counter points to restrooms and the elevator. It also proclaims, ‘No Maps’. The only way to get around is to explore. Four floors of labyrinths and slides, industrial components, sculpture, tableaus of architectural ornament, plaster serpents, and thousands of beetles pinned behind glass; plus an outdoor jungle gym, a Ferris wheel on the roof, and a school bus perched above the city. The juxtaposition of fanciful play, machinery, craft, and fine art is unprecedented. And it works. There is nothing overtly ‘educational’ in City Museum, but you see kids, and adults, making new connections and deepening their understanding all the time.
Rick coordinates a staff of four administrators, ten full-time builders, and an assortment of folks wearing STAFF shirts. The day we met, he was all excited about City Museum’s Tony Cragg sculpture recently arrived from Paris. “We’ve started adding purchased pieces to our collection. It takes us so long to build new things, but we need to have new items for repeat visitors.” The art that City Museum purchases aligns with its identity – quirky and fun yet thought provoking. However, fine art creates one distinct shift in the museum’s focus. “We have a fourth floor gallery where you cannot touch the objects. That is a big change for City Museum, where hands on has always been the rule.”
Rick stresses City Museum’s biggest draw. “Kids love slides. Slides allow me to buy art and architecture.” Indeed, there are dozens of slides throughout City Museum, from shallow five foot straight runs in a toddler area to a six-story chute that winds around the outside of the building. But City Museum’s not just for kids. Late Friday afternoon, groups of young twenty something’s queued up to visit. On weekends, City Museum’s a night spot open until 1:00 a.m.
When I got to the fourth floor, and came to the art gallery, Tony Cragg’s ‘Spark’ was sitting there, albeit still on a crate platform. Two older men were studying the piece, looking at is odd reflections. “What is it?” “It’s like a splash, like an alien is going to come out of it.” At City Museum, that seemed quite possible.
How will we live tomorrow?
“I have two kids now. We’ve reached a point where we have too much. It’s hard to simplify with kids. We try to reuse – the way we build here in the museum. We’ve got a nice two-bedroom house that ought to be enough, but we think we’ve got to get more space.
“I’ll give you the Patagonia answer: Simply.”