Video by Jon Alexander
Rick Erwin points to an oversized, industrial tank and explains how he imagines it is as part of a playground for toddlers. Like a weird game of I Spy, he highlights hundreds of bike rims; an airplane; a graveyard of cast-iron architectural columns; carnival rides; a windmill; and a wall of metal wheels several feet high. The tank has something he especially loves: grommets, although the paint on top is less than ideal. Someone nearby says it reminds them of a submarine.
“I have two submarines upstairs for scrapping,” he remembers. “I never found a place for them.”
Erwin, executive director of City Museum, continues the tour of one of the storage areas. The space is everything a City Museum visitor would expect: a little dusty, very industrial and undeniable quirky. Between the sounds of construction, Nazareth’s Love Hurts is playing. Most passing employees throw a quick joke toward the other. And the overwhelming large space is nearly full to the ceiling of could-be trash that is just too special for the scrap yard. The iconic attraction is wrapping up “build season,” a period between summer and spring break where the hours adjust to allow for more construction, and there’s still work left to be done.
“Once Bob [Cassilly, founder] passed away it became a collective,” Erwin explains of City Museum’s unique approach to design. Job descriptions aren’t black and white here, with floor staff and housekeeping offering concept ideas and executives making models of projects that excite them. There’s a heavy emphasis on creativity and all ideas seem welcome.
Erwin explains the organization had about a year’s worth of work planned out when Cassilly passed in 2011. “Now its continuous,” he says while standing between a few in-the-works projects and listing the origin story of every upcycled material in sight. Work during this build season includes a still-in-construction projects like a new children’s castle; a large octopus stairwell; and another multi-floor slide.
The end dates on the project aren’t concrete. The hole for the slide was just cut, for example, but then covered again to be worked on later—it’ll probably open in 2019, Erwin estimates. The castle and octopus are farther along, but still require some work from the crew before opening to the public. The museum brings in items like large-scale sculptures for quicker changes since these projects take so long to build; pieces on loan from the St. Louis Art Center make up an entire gallery upstairs.
The crew is not only responsible for the projects’ execution, but for the ideas themselves. City Museum employees pitch concepts as they come to them—for example, the crew member responsible for the octopus, Joe Bacus, explains his work background as in neither architecture nor design but shoveling concrete for Cassilly when he was alive. Now he’s to thank for the oversized sea creature children will soon run through to exit the caves.
“When I started here, they told me there was no room for advancement. I didn’t like that,” Erwin says. “So, everybody starts on floor staff and we have to work our way up. [If] we start to see floor staff get burnt out, maybe they want to try some projects… and if they work, some of them go to crew.”
The goals with new City Museum projects are pretty simple. Remove dead ends. Avoid things that make visitors wait in line. Make it fun. Keep things safe. And while it’s never said as a specific project requirement, Erwin points out tiny details around the space showcasing magic little moments running children might miss.
“If you can find the secret doors, good for you. Not everyone can,” says Erwin. And what about if you can’t find the door at all? “If you don’t make it out, I’ll put you on the staff.”