Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Coolest Place on Earth

I have a recurring dream where I find myself in a city that is at once familiar and completely foreign. The city is an industrial metropolis set in post-industrial time, well past its prime (not unlike my own city of Chicago), while artifacts of a bygone era, magnificent commercial and industrial buildings proudly adorned with terracotta ornament, and equally magnificent but long-obsolete machinery sit idle, waiting patiently for someone to come along and make them come back to life. In another dream, I find myself inside a theater which is a building with many rooms. Inside each room is performed a different, interactive play. In this theater, the visitor is encouraged to wander from one room to the next at will, so no two experiences of the theater is exactly the same.

It seems likely that St. Louis artist Bob Cassilly must have had similar dreams at some point in his life. But Cassilly was not first and foremost a dreamer. A man of vision and boundless energy, Cassilly the doer, was able to not only realize those dreams, but take the dream a step farther and bring those artifacts of the city's past back to a glorious new life.

The dream became realized in what has become one of St. Louis's most popular attractions, The City Museum. City Museum is part art installation, part amusement park, and yes in a small way, part museum. Wandering through Cassilly's creation is a little like wandering through an Escher painting. Tubes made of Rebar lead to who knows where, it's entirely up to the visitor to climb into them to discover for himself. That point is made clear as one buys a ticket and learns that there are (intentionally) no maps to be found in or of the joint.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of City Museum is the massive sculpture on the exterior of the ten story former shoe factory that Cassilly purchased in 1983. It's called Monstro and it is constructed out of building materials, machine parts, and abandoned vehicles including an old fire engine and two jet airplanes. All of it is connected by the ubiquitous tubes and slides that visitors are encouraged to climb through or slide down, sometimes at heart stopping heights. Oh yes then there's the school bus placed precariously over the edge of the roof that you can see at the top left edge of the photograph below. In case you're wondering, yes of course you can climb into the bus and sit behind the wheel suspended ten stories above the ground.

The man pictured above did exactly what I did, crawling head-first on all fours while looking straight down the shaky tube to the ground five stories below. What you don't see in the photograph is where the wire tube is leading. Just beyond the left frame of the picture, the tube takes a sudden bend straight down meaning the visitor has to turn himself completely around, lest he be forced to crawl spider-like, upside-down to the end of the tube. Given the diameter of the tube was only about three feet, turning one's self around to go feet first, especially for an adult who is anything but a contortionist, was no easy task. But I did it, as did this guy, making us both the better for it.

There were several things I told myself I wasn't going to do like ride the ferris wheel mounted on the building's roof, or ride down the "ten story slide" which was originally built as a chute to send boxes of shoes quickly from the building's upper stories to the warehouses down below. Well with a little encouragement from my wife, I did both those things and lived to tell about it. Incidentally, that slide lets you off in the guts of the building where Cassilly and his staff built a recreation of a cave complete with stalactites and stalagmites. One nifty addition to the cave is a working theater pipe-organ with an automatic player-console which plays intermittently throughout the day, its baffles, bellows, pipes, cymbals, drums and horns only feet from you. Imagine "Lady of Spain" reverberating through the closed space at sound levels approaching that of a rock concert or jet airplane at takeoff, and you kind of get the idea.

The museum part of City Museum includes a working shoe lace factory and salvaged bits and pieces of lost cities, St. Louis of course but also Chicago and others. Didactic info is kept to a minimum. Instead, unlike a typical museum, the visitor is encouraged to touch and interact with the objects, just as one would of, had the objects been in their original settings. In Bob Cassilly's words found on City Museum's web site:
The point is not to learn every fact, but to say, "Wow, that's wonderful." And if it's wonderful, it's worth preserving.

One exception to objects that could be interacted with in their natural settings are the massive safe doors on display, whose original owners certainly would not have encouraged interaction with the public. These things were intended to been seen but not touched, silent guardians of the fortunes enclosed within the vaults behind them. The mere sight of these doors instilled security in the minds of bank customers who figured their life's savings were safe behind these magnificent objects. Their magnificence is not diminished one bit by being able to examine the workings of these safe doors whose multiple locks and dials are activated by hundreds of tiny gears on the inside of the door. These objects are perfect symbols of our long lost industrial age where workmanship and attention to detail speak of a time when craftsmen and artisans truly took pride in their work. City Museum is filled with many such objects.

When I first visited City Museum with my family ten years ago, I assumed that something like this could never have been built in Chicago because of liability issues in a litigious city, however I now realize it goes much deeper than that. Putting it simply, something like this could not have been built here because we don't have a Bob Cassilly. Sadly, Cassilly died in an accident in 2011 as he was behind the controls of a bulldozer which toppled over while he was working on an even more ambitions project. It was to be called Cementland, a massive earthworks piece built on the site of a former cement plant across the river form St. Louis. That quixotic,  half-finished project seemed to die along with Bob Cassilly.

Here is an in depth portrait of Cassilly from St. Louis Magazine, published shortly after his death.

Reading the article I could not help be reminded of a kindred spirit of sorts who lived and died a similar death in pursuit of his passion. His name was Richard Nickel and you can read about him herehere and here.

Nickel's passion was saving the legacy of the architect Louis Sullivan, much of whose work vanished right before Nickel's eyes. A great artist in his own right, Nickel had the opportunity to photograph much of the architect's work before it vanished. He also salvaged many bits and pieces of Sullivan buildings, the pursuit of which cost him his life as the walls of Sullivan's masterpiece, The Chicago Stock Exchange Building while under demolition, collapsed on top of him in 1971.

Nickel's ultimate goal was to publish an exhaustive study of the complete works of Sullivan which was nowhere near completion at the time of his death. It took his friend, colleague and protege, the architect John Vinci to painstakingly complete Nickel's project a few short years ago.

As Cassilly has many proteges who continue his vision by building and working at City Museum, perhaps Cementland will be blessed with a similar fate.

One can only hope.

Here are some more pictures of the coolest place on earth:

Adults and children are inexorably drawn to the ladders and chutes of MonstroCity, the centerpiece of the City Museum.

MonstroCity from ground level

Tile floors exemplify Bob Cassilly's playful artistic style.

Terracotta architectural artifacts justify the museum part of City Museum

Bits and pieces of our industrial past ornament City Museum.

Boy about to enter a slide, destination unknown.

The chutes and ladders of City Museum, St. Louis

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