There is nowhere else in this galaxy quite like St. Louis’ City Museum. While it might not be a hidden gem, it is downright remarkable to visit. It’s an art museum, made up of components one might find in a history museum, all laid out as a surrealistic adult-friendly playground.
One minute you could be inside a gorgeous sculpture of a giant whale; the next you’re crawling through a cave. You might start off in a treehouse, hop down a slide, and wind up in a massive, adult-sized ball pit. Or you can be admiring a room full of priceless opera posters and accidentally wander into an aquarium.
In an attempt to understand the enigma that is City Museum, I set up an interview and tour with Richard Callow. Callow is listed as the media contact on City Museum’s website, but he’s more like the story keeper of the place, and has been since the founder—famed sculptor and artist Bob Cassilly—died in an accident in 2011.
Callow met Cassilly when Cassilly bought the building Callow was living in. During their first interaction, Cassilly told Callow he planned to make a lot of noise, without giving much context. Cassilly brought in heavy equipment to start work on the museum the next day. Callow has been along for the ride ever since.
An eccentric tour
It’s not often that I leave an interview more confused than when I arrived, but the tour I got of City Museum is quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. “Eccentric” is the first word that comes to mind when describing the tour—and the museum itself.
At the start, Callow reminded me that it’s called “City Museum”—not “The City Museum”—because it’s a museum of many cities, not just one. Components used in the installations include leftover rebar from highways, old facades, airplane fuselages, towers from mansions, gargoyles from Europe, playground equipment, a firetruck, and more. Callow says that there’s naturally a lot of St. Louis in here, but almost as much Chicago—and from what I saw, there’s plenty of New York City as well.
City Museum is part art museum, encouraging kids to engage with art the way they engage with nature. You could also call it a collection of collections, including bugs, taxidermied animals, glass bottles, building facades, marbles, pinball machines—you get the idea.
One of the first things Callow pointed out was a giant block of Missouri granite, suspended by a metal cable. Callow told me that Cassilly originally wanted to put a time-out chair under it, where parents could sit their kids. He followed up with, “Thank God we didn’t do that, because it’s fallen. Twice.”
A place where everything is made up
Callow later told me not to bother fact-checking anything he said, since half of it was made up.
When we stopped to admire an electric chair sitting outside of Beatnik Bob’s—a snack bar, pinball machine gallery, and concert venue—I made the mistake of asking if the electric chair was real. “What would you prefer I say, yes or no?” Callow asked. I told him I wanted the truth, and he looked at me for a minute before saying that it was real. I still have no clue whether he was kidding or not.
Other assorted statements Callow made that are of indeterminate truth include that the World’s Largest Underwear were once stolen from the museum, and later returned, washed and folded; that workers set the museum’s 1924 Wurlitzer Pipe Organ from the Rivoli Theater in New York City on fire days after it was restored; and that Cassilly buried his dog Peewee in an old tower from a mansion that sits outside. The list of similar stories goes on and on.
One thing I know to be true (because this is fact-checkable) is that the building was originally a warehouse for shoes. One of the most popular attractions in the space is the Shoe Shafts, located deep in the heart of the building.
The shafts were once used by warehouse workers to send shoes of various sizes and styles from floors above down to the loading dock. Today, the shafts are used as slides of varying heights (three, five, and 10 stories each).
Slides seem to be a theme in the museum, as there are plenty throughout. Callow mentioned that Cassilly was especially fascinated by gravity. Callow claims that, in honor of Cassilly, they throw pumpkins or small appliances off the roof to mark anniversaries or celebrate special occasions.
The roof is open to City Museum visitors for an extra fee. It contains a small Ferris wheel, a pond, and a 24-foot-tall metal praying mantis you can climb inside, among other oddities. But the most eye-catching feature is the bus that’s hanging off the edge.
Putting the bus on the roof was, as the story goes, a spur of the moment decision, but was easy enough to execute. The real problem came when the city caught wind of the bus hanging off the edge of the roof. Callow claims that it was resolved when the city ordered the museum to file for a bus removal permit—which doesn’t exist—effectively putting the issue into a permanent legal stalemate. I imagine the numerous safety measures put in to keep the bus secure helped the matter as well.
Callow says that the city of St. Louis likes City Museum. It was an immediate hit when it first opened, and remains world-renowned. It started bringing visitors to a lesser-traveled part of town, and still attracts huge crowds to this day. Nearly a quarter of a million people visit annually, according to numbers from 2017 (for reference, the population of St. Louis is around 318,000).
Another super-popular exhibit is MonstroCity, an outdoor playground built in front of the warehouse. Two airplane fuselages perch, connected by walkways, ladders, stone towers, treehouses, slides, and skinny spiral staircases. There’s also a giant ball pit, which Callow claims used to be for amateur boxing. Tucked below the playground is an old cabin that once belonged to Daniel Boone’s son. It now serves as a bar.
There’s also the “skateless skatepark,” which houses one of the world’s largest pencils. It’s 76 feet long and fully functioning—even the eraser. Callow told me that a cult had made it for their teacher, and that it was eventually given to the museum. I just assumed that the part about the cult was a joke, but it turned out to be true, making me slightly more open to maybe, possibly believing some of Callow’s other tall tales.
A constant work in progress
The museum is never technically done. Right now, they’re building their own aquarium, to replace one that recently moved out. A joke Callow repeated was that “Bob never liked anyone else’s art.” But since Cassilly died, the employees have been putting their own little touches in the new space, like the stunning fish mural on the floor or the octopus wrapped around a doorway.
But they’re not forgetting about Cassilly, either. The centerpiece of the new aquarium will be the hippo statues Cassilly made for the Central Park Safari Playground in New York City. Molds of the originals still exist in the park, and Callow said the day the statues returned to the museum was an emotional day for everyone.
City Museum only takes up four floors and the roof. The fifth floor of the building is comprised of condos, and the rest of the building is storage. The museum itself has a few tenants—most notably a small shoelace factory and the Everyday Circus, which offers lessons and shows to the public.
I asked Callow how long he thought it would take to see everything in the museum and he replied, “Oh, years.” I don’t doubt it. The attention to detail is incredible, and the closer you look at things, the more you see. There are tons of hidden passageways, tunnels, doors, slides, ladders, and even a rock climbing wall for anyone willing to look. Apparently children actually don’t get lost as much as you’d expect, since the museum was designed for parents to be able to follow the kids just about anywhere.
But if you or your kid do get lost in the maze of art—good luck finding them. The fact that there are no maps to the place is very intentional, and Callow says that the exit signs exist against Cassilly’s wishes. Even so, Callow says: “The only time you see a kid cry here is when it’s time for them to leave.” After he said it, I couldn’t help but notice that I didn’t see a single unhappy child.
There’s so much to see and do here, but one of the most memorable parts of the tour was standing with Callow, watching the expressions of the visitors—kids and adults alike, playing on the MonstroCity.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if any of the stories I heard were true, because I had a blast. The tour only added to the mythology and mystery, and made me realize City Museum isn’t a bunch of artifacts or a list of exhibits to see—it’s something special that’s meant to be experienced altogether.
If you go
Admission is $16 a person, $21 if you would like to access the roof. On Fridays and Saturdays, City Museum is open until midnight for adults, so discounted “After 5 p.m.” tickets are offered on those days. It’s suggested to wearing knee pads, since you might want to do some crawling around. Those are available for purchase in the gift shop. Closed-toed shoes are also recommended, and you’re welcome to bring a flashlight.