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The Sensible Traveler

In St. Louis, cast off for City Museum

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / January 16, 2005

City Museum in St. Louis is one of those unique local attractions that every tourist goes looking for but rarely finds.

I grew up in St. Louis and visit family there twice a year, but I had never heard of the museum until my brothers suggested a visit over the holidays. With that name, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

The first hint that it was going to be something unusual came seven blocks away. My brother pointed out the 10-story museum building and there on the top was a yellow school bus, the front end dangling over the edge of the roof.

As we pulled up closer, it was clear this was no traditional museum. There was a giant serpent on the fence surrounding the building. Up above the parking lot, suspended 50 to 60 feet in the air, was a small plane that people were climbing in and out of through metal coils. Below was a ball pit, not the kind you find at a McDonald's, but a giant one with soft volleyball-size balls that children and adults of all ages were throwing at each other.

The museum is the creation of sculptor Bob Cassilly. He bought the former International Shoe Co. building in 1993 and four years later began opening the museum in phases. The museum currently occupies the building's first three floors and residential lofts on the upper floors. A water park is scheduled to open on the roof this summer.

Cassilly and his band of construction engineers and artisans have recycled many of society's castoffs into a series of eclectic exhibits and physical challenges. The attention to detail is phenomenal, from the tile fragments on the floors to the pans on the walls to the man-made trees painted with frogs and lizards.

There's a mini-museum of St. Louis architecture, complete with a gargoyle, a shoelace factory, an aquarium, a glass-blowing studio, and an art city, where visitors can build all sorts of crafts. The day I visited, there was even a special fire pit outside where marshmallows were available for roasting.

Children are drawn to the tunnels that seem to snake everywhere and the slides that run from the third to the first floor. A circular slide in the enchanted caves once carried shoes from the upper floors of the building to the basement.

Many of the tunnels and pathways are dark and some are very narrow, almost claustrophobic. It's easy to bump your head or scrape an elbow, but children seemed to relish the danger.

"It doesn't have to be shiny and polished to be attractive to kids," said Elizabeth Parker, director of the museum, who said injuries are uncommon. "People have more common sense than you give them credit for. Our insurance company actually likes us."

The visitor count has been growing steadily, from 347,000 in 2003 to 500,000 last year. But Parker acknowledges the museum still isn't on the radar screens of many St. Louisans, let alone visitors to the city.

"In a lot of ways, we're the best-kept secret in town," she said.

For travelers, that's the challenge on any trip: finding the unique attractions that can make a vacation special. The best advice is to read as much as possible about your destination and, if possible, talk to people who live there or at least have visited there.

A helpful tool is TripAdvisor.com, a trip-planning website that includes a popularity index for attractions. Langley Steinert, chairman and cofounder of Needham-based TripAdvisor, said the index continuously ranks attractions using everything written about them on the Web.

TripAdvisor listed City Museum as the seventh most popular attraction in St. Louis, behind the Arch; the St. Louis Zoo; the Anheuser-Busch manufacturing plant; The Magic House, St. Louis Children's Museum; the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis; and the St. Louis Science Center.

(In Boston, the top five attractions listed by TripAdvisor are the Freedom Trail, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston Duck Tours, the USS Constitution, and Faneuil Hall Marketplace.)

Information is available on each St. Louis attraction, including guidebook references, travel articles, online forums, and consumer reviews. Two TripAdvisor members posted reviews of City Museum, both very positive.

"The kids loved the outdoor MonstroCity where they could climb three stories up in the air and explore old airplanes and huge slinky-like tubes and then slide down to the next level," said one reviewer from Milwaukee.

"This is about as good as you're going to get for local knowledge," Steinert said of TripAdvisor. "It's the sum of many people's different experiences."

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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