St. Louis sites: City Museum, basilica, more

One of the best attractions for children and young adults in St. Louis isn’t about the next best thing – as in movie, toy or cartoon. It’s about finding new life for just about any old thing. The city’s ultimate recycling project adds elements of entertainment, suspense, adventure and danger.

So imagine a school bus that looks like it might tumble from the top of a 10-story building, not far from the rooftop Ferris wheel. Take a seat on either. Nearby, an abandoned jet hovers and seems suspended in air.

The St. Louis City Museum, a former shoe factory and warehouse, opened in 1997, full of secret passages and artwork made from castoff materials, thanks to the imagination of sculptor Bob Cassilly. The nimble climb tunnels, swing on ropes, fumble through darkened caves, step up to a treehouse and gleefully slide down rollers that formerly transported shoes through the factory assembly line.

Some paths twist five stories high. Climbing happens in and out of the building. Although conspicuous signage alerts parents to potential hazards while at play – and the names of lawyers who have sued the museum because of injuries, the information seems to entice more than stifle business. Bloggers praise the place while boasting about bumps and bruises earned there.

Classify the City Museum as a rare attraction that simultaneously amazes visitors while satisfying the basic urges of (at least) two generations to explore and inspect hidden pathways. Discarded heating coils from a brewery are big enough to squirm into, then use as steps. From a distance, it’s like watching people maneuver inside a giant Slinky that bends and ascends but doesn’t actually move.

“There are three tunnels and over a 100 feet of crawl space in the whale alone,” co-owner David Jump reports online. He is referring to the massive Bowhead Whale sculpture that meshes with the museum’s World Aquarium, where living sea life is studied amid artsy nautical forms and elaborate excavations.

The work to create new exhibits and climbing channels is ongoing, so City Museum won’t seem stale to repeat visitors. Picture giant dragonflies made out of old watchbands, a ceiling fringe made of hundreds of old neckties, mosaics of junkyard scraps (which my guide refers to as “foreign object debris”).

Daredevils enroll in circus skill classes, learning trapeze to wire walking. Creative spirits emerge with unique souvenirs, made spontaneously in a glittery and cluttered Art City workshop.

The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, includes City Museum on its list of Great Public Spaces in the World, describing it as “an adventurous, ramshackle collection of outsized sculptures and play spaces, including famous multi-story slides.”

Couples on dates, and perhaps parents who want to calm their nerves, lounge at Beatnik Bob’s, whose carnival theme includes a corndogs-through-the-ages exhibit, or order a drink at the Cabin Inn, an 1804 log cabin on City Museum’s ground floor.

The third floor is as somber as the museum gets. On show: an unusual assortment of architectural artifacts, accompanied by the often-sad tales of demolition undertaken in the name of progress. Notice the remnants from architect Louis Sullivan buildings.

Bargain hunters find their way to The Baleout, a fourth-floor clothing resale shop touted as among the biggest in the Midwest. Inventory arrives in one-ton bales and prices are paltry: from $1 for a coat, $2 for a tuxedo bowtie.

One can only imagine what sits in the museum archives. Next up for the museum founder is transformation of an old cement factory, a work-in-progress since the 1990s.

For more about City Museum, 701 N. 15th St., St. Louis: www.citymuseum.org, 314-231-2489.

Other less-obvious ways to get acquainted with St. Louis:

– Tour the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, 4431 Lindell Blvd., whose Byzantine interior is covered with the world’s biggest mosaic collection (41.5 million pieces of molten glass on 83,000 square feet of ceiling, walls and floors).

The artwork depicts Biblical, church and city history. A basement museum explains how and when mosaic work was undertaken. For more: www.cathedralstl.org, 314-373-8240.

– Tour Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Ave., and sample the handcrafted beer. Also on the premises is a garden, whose bounty is used in the brewpub’s daily specials. Add an order of warm pretzel bread, with a beer-cheese sauce for dipping.

Visit on a Wednesday afternoon, when a farmers’ market moves onto the premises. Local, family-owned purveyors get star treatment on the brewpub menu. For more: www.schlafly.com, 314-241-BEER.

– Order a BLT salad, meat loaf platter or slow-cooked corn beef at McMurphy’s Grill, 614 N. 11th St., and contribute to a worthy cause. Since 1990, the restaurant has provided job training to homeless and mentally ill adults – the first such program in the U.S.

St. Patrick Center oversees this endeavor and supports clientele work in other ways, including the City Seeds Urban Farm, operated through the nonprofit Gateway Greening. For more: www.stpatrickcenter.org, 314-231-3006, and www.gatewaygreening.org, 314-588-9600.

– Wander through Citygarden downtown, 720 Olive St., where 24 whimsical sculptures are situated among foliage and fountains. For more: www.citygardenstl.org

– Climb a set of stairs to Saratoga Lanes, 2725 Sutton Blvd., oldest bowling alley west of the Mississippi River. Eight lanes, open since 1916, plus pool tables. For more: www.saratogalanes.com, 314-645-5308.

– Blend in with the locals and order the Cardinal Sin – vanilla custard, hot fudge and tart cherries – from Ted Drewes, 6726 Chippewa St. (one of two locations; this one is a Route 66 stop, in business since 1941). Or fatten up with a “concrete,” a shake so thick that you can turn it upside-down and not lose a drop. For more: www.teddrewes.com, 314-481-2652.

– Take note of native son Chuck Berry’s monthly concerts (the $25 tickets get snapped up fast) at Blueberry Hill, 6504 Delmar Blvd., known for its burgers and pop culture memorabilia. For more: www.blueberryhill.com, 314-727-4444.

– Most interesting overnight digs: Moonrise Hotel, 6177 Delmar Blvd., whose celestial theme includes the rooftop bar that sits under the subdued glow of a manmade moon. Suites pay homage to St. Louis-born celebrities, Tennessee Williams to Redd Foxx. For more: www.moonrisehotel.com, 314-721-1111.

– The stars shine 24/4 along Delmar’s sidewalks because of the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which honors poet Maya Angelou to actress Shelley Winters. For more: www.stlouiswalkoffame.org.

For more about planning a St. Louis vacation: www.explorestlouis.com, 800-916-8938.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.

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