“ ‘But isn’t everything here green?’ asked Dorothy.
‘No more than in any other city,’ replied Oz. ‘But when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you.’ ”
As I follow Lake Michigan from downtown to the Gold Coast to Lincoln Park, I wonder how it happened that Chicago got so lucky, how it was the only one of these cities that maintained much of its iconic spot in the ideal map of the United States. Like the Emerald City, America is no greener than any other land, and the monuments to manifest destiny scattered across its heartland are no more green than any other cities. Somewhere between Baum’s and Judy Garland’s worlds, between the Columbian Exhibition and the Worlds Fair, and the Great War and the Great Depression and the Second World War, the familiar man behind the curtain was bared.
A stroll through downtown St. Louis tells a story of 20th century America that is not so clearly written upon Chicago’s “magnificent mile.” Condemned buildings with smashed in windows line the streets. Urban renewal projects—restored condos built into old factories—remain unrented. But it is also here, on a corner surrounded by many still unoccupied buildings, that the Never Never Land of the magic of the Midwest of Worlds Fairs, the material home of local and regional American histories reborn, stands.
The first time I visited the City Museum was as a stop on the tail end of a road trip through the South. I walked past the cement castles and adult-sized ball pit stemming from the side of the warehouse, beneath the neon sign directing us to the entrance. A mid-19th century homestead cabin protruded from the frontal façade of the building; from the inside, I saw that it was reconstructed as a fairly rowdy bar. A life-sized hollow replica of a sperm whale melted into the oversized tree that branched into tunnels crawling towards the second and third floors of the museum. For every secret passage upward, there appeared to be slides to bring its adventurers back down. I climbed all ten flights of the original warehouse’s staircase to the roof of the museum, which itself looked and felt like a carnival; it was topped with a running Ferris wheel, old school buses and airplanes protruding precariously off the edges of the building open for exploration, and skeletons of domed structures turned cages hanging above the museum—a panoptical view of the museum for brave children and inebriated adults. My fellow traveler told me that there was even a slide going from the roof to the very bottom of the museum. When he dared me to enter an enclosed cavern sloping downward, I held my breath and slid in to the abyss. I emerged a few feet lower beside a pond full of brass frogs, and the dread I had initially felt burst out in laughter and relief. As we plunged into the unknown territories of the boundless corners of the museum, I found myself endlessly encountering the unexpected. Every element of the museum seemed like an impossibility, yet there it was.
The value of these Things in our time emerges from something incomparable to pre-capitalist, pre-industrial worlds—the transformation of the vernacular object to a treasure over the course of 20–30 years. What we call “kitsch value”—the humorous, tacky aesthetic of singing sea basses and pink flamingos—is still value. Even if a Thing did not have much worth at the time of purchase or salvage, it has accrued some now, simply by being included in a collection that seems to say something about someone, or somewhere, or some time. City Museum creator Bob Cassilly scouted St. Louis for artists and wingnuts just as he collected architectural and domestic relics to fill his little Emerald City. The City Museum houses a myriad of bizarre collections that illustrate a multi-faceted history of St. Louis, which itself appears as a microcosm of the United States. Like the objects that fill our lives in America, the value of space, work, and people in this country has been in a constant and rapid flux that mirrors the relative scale of time and expansion of the United States. Anyone with money can define themselves through objects, and so the Things that are not desirable become the most desirable to those who want to tell unusual stories. Each corner of the City Museum comprises broad definitions of wealth and value for the non-royal American classes, the mania of the obsessive collector, personal histories, the relics of niche communities, scientific specimens and discoveries, and regional archaeologies.
Walking through the caverns of old streetcars, gargoyles, and bank vaults stripped from demolished buildings to create the museum’s sculptural interior, I recognize the pieces of the Great Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the partial and transformed collections of the City Museum as elements painting an unfinished portrait of what happened to the ideal American city—as it appeared circa 1904—through a form that defies every convention of the historical museum. St. Louis was the second-largest (the first was Chicago) of a series of Midwestern Emerald cities built as monuments to manifest destiny. They were more imposing, more modern, and more American than the quaint, European-influenced architectures of east coast cities. Through the buildings strewn across St. Louis and Chicago, architects like Louis Sullivan and his protégé Frank Lloyd Wright originated entire aesthetics that embodied the fantasy of a truly “new world.” Much like the ancient Roman Empire, such building projects anticipated a future in which contemporaneous modes of living and producing could remain robust. But mines eventually empty, railroads are completed, and citizens’ desires shift as new technologies develop. In new economic climates, the value of these architectural feats was diminished. As Thomas Dyja writes about Frank Lloyd Wright during the Great Depression, though “his Prairie Style architecture [was] beloved, no one was asking him to save the city.” Many of these buildings, drained of their civic functions, exist in the strange space of retaining some aesthetic, symbolic value alongside a heightened awareness of the absence of their use value. Emptied factories, banks, and schools still haunt St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Gary, Detroit, and even Chicago. The skeletons strewn across these cities are the permanent remnants—and reminders—of fleeting ideologies.
The City Museum embodies St. Louis past and present, a city emblematic of larger histories of the United States—a city that rose high and fell hard through years of slave-based economies, westward expansion, industrialization, the Great Depression, and many subsequent efforts of revitalization. Creator Bob Cassilly, who spearheaded the project from the museum’s inception in 1997 until his death in 2011, designed a series of interactive, sculptural playgrounds that repurpose architectural and mechanical parts sourced from the abandoned material of historical St. Louis. Every hallway, corridor, tunnel, and exhibition area incorporates stained glass windows, marble columns, conveyor belts, fast food mascots, and elevator cars as thought they were steel beams, lumber, and panes of glass. Detached from the narratives that often accompany “significant” objects of history, each component can be appreciated for its aesthetic and tactile material qualities rather than for the immaterial value of a relic. In his planning of the City Museum, Cassilly created a home for the personal collections and curatorial projects of artists, archeologists, and historians that together tell a dialogic history of the city and its Midwestern sisters.
As I step into the parking lot, I hear children screaming and laughing, and in nearing the building, see them crawling through steel cage tunnels that weave in and out of the inside of the museum. Pathways made of fences, scaffolding, and pieces of old bridges stretch out from beneath a domed bronze gazebo rusted green. A large glowing arrow reading “entrance” is tacked to the front railing. After purchasing my ticket, I am greeted by the large white whale sculpture amid the tiled underwater-motif mosaic and roots that hold the base of the tree-tunnels stretching up to the third floor of the museum.
The life-sized white whale obscures the entrance to the Enchanted Caves, a network of naturalistic tunnels adorned with gargoyles and other enchanted accents, built from sculpted concrete and salvaged industrial materials. The caves are dark and moist, illuminated by violet, ruby, and emerald crystals. Serpents wind in and around secret passageways that spiral three or four stories up. A slow and eerie melody fills the room. As I climb upwards through the cavern, I am able to see that the sound is piped in through an automated Wurlitzer organ. Upon further exploration, I reach windows to other parts of the museum, without explanation, seen from the inside out. From within the caves, there are very few areas that can’t be accessed, and no things that cannot be touched. I am the precious interior, the exhibition—the glass and steel bars separating me from the museum’s displays protect me from knowing too much. By being inducted into the museum through its organs, spelunkers suspend their adherence to the imposition of institutional perspectives.
My eyes adjust to the bright lights as I crawl out from the enchanted caves and ascend the main staircase to the third floor, which holds Beatnik Bob’s, the Sullivanesque Architecture Museum, and a few smaller displays credited to individual artists, historians, and hobbyists “discovered” and curated by Cassilly. Directly in front of the staircase is a series of wood and glass cabinets housing Amateur Urban-Archaeologist Jim Meiners’s collection of 19th century vernacular artifacts. Porcelain doll parts are arranged in rows by size—40 heads, 28 arms, 36 hands. Countless liquor and medicinal jars fill rows upon rows of these cases. There is even a ceramic flask shaped like a pretzel. An accompanying text by the first case tells me that Meiners accumulated pieces that were essentially garbage, preserved in the outhouses, wells, and cisterns of downtown St. Louis. It is clear that most of the items are broken and reassembled or the remaining fragments of larger pieces. The original uses of these trinkets, toys, and household objects are not unique in what they tell us about ordinary life in 19th century St. Louis. However, in learning of where they were found, these anthropology-museum style cases of objects display an alarming array of what was once considered expendable. They also open the door to the world of eccentric hobbyists who take it upon themselves to resuscitate that which was garbage in its own time and could well be non-existent now.
To the right of Meiners’s collection is the corridor leading to the Sullivanesque Architecture museum. Curated by Cassilly’s childhood friend and historian Bruce Gerrie, the meta-museum appears to be the most “traditional” exhibit in the City Museum. Emerald frames of brick and marble support the interior and exterior remains and plaster casts of destroyed and renovated modern architectural feats of the Midwest. The wall-texts hold scattered gems amongst the duller histories of ornament—according to one anecdote, John Dudas, the painter of a door purported to be the only remaining piece of a landscape mural covering the entirety to a Lafayette Square house, “became a misanthrope after suffering from traumatic experiences serving in W.W.I., heartache caused by rejection by a woman, and financial troubles brought on by the Great Depression.”
A small historically re-created room installation sits in the center of the architectural displays. It hosts two bathtubs and a toilet atop an ornate rug, situated in front of a grand fireplace and austere portrait paintings. Typically, the period room aims to resurrect a historical moment. However, Gerrie places the things that remind us of our most private activities in a living room for public view, forbidding his audience from experience a perfect picture of the past. A standard re-creation uses historical accuracy as a license to construct a “piece of time,” a “window to the past.” Current socio-economic and racial tensions are swallowed inside these other times through being erased entirely or presented as remnants of inequalities from the past; their visitors are absolved of their own contributions to and responsibilities for the problems of history that plague contemporary social conditions. That the money St. Louis lost in the Great Depression was predicated on a slave-labor economy is not explicitly expressed in the pieces that are displayed—but the discomfort created by the clashes of space and time, the pieces of buildings clearly without (or within the wrong) contexts, the monuments to buildings that no longer stand—force the audience to ponder what it is that has been lost, distorted, or forgotten over time.
Moving across the third floor, I start to see that the museum as a whole is as much about Bob Cassilly—the artist, the collector, the personality—as it is about St. Louis. The crazy, erratic Cassilly of stories becomes more and more real to me every time with every visit. I spoke with current creative director Rick Erwin to learn a little more about the people who created (and continue to create) the body of the museum. He told me that the guys who make up the Cassilly Crew have been there for years and stayed on staff because they were the “seven or eight people who wouldn’t put up with Bob’s shit.” I informed Erwin that I got the sense from what I’ve heard about Cassilly that he was a total nutcase. Erwin agreed emphatically but assured me it was in the best way. Then he told me a story of a time that Cassilly figured out one of their scrapper-suppliers was stealing materials from the museum. He reached out to shake the scrapper’s hand, and when the man totally didn’t expect it, just started punching him in the stomach. The scrapper tried to run away, but Cassilly chased after him with a broom and hit him with it repeatedly. It took Erwin and two other men to pull Cassilly off of the man and bring him back to his truck. When they came back inside, as though the incident did not happen, Cassilly simply told Erwin that the museum really needed some new brooms. Erwin said that the two goals he set for himself when he was hired were to bring more guests to the museum and to “keep Bob out of jail.”
Cassilly’s rogue methods of bringing his projects to life were the means by which the museum came to fruition. No “sane” person could have thwarted enough lawsuits, evaded fire code violations, or collected enough wingnuts to create the City Museum he left behind. One such character—St. Louis artist Bill Christman—designed what is perhaps my favorite part of the museum. Beatnik Bob’s commemorates the Midway carnival, evokes the Worlds Fair, and proudly displays an impressive collection of local Midwest bizarro Americana. It is also a functional café/bar. The small room is packed with cases of oddities, 1970s arcade games, overflowing bookshelves, carnival posters, and a fully-functional chemical process black-and-white photobooth. In the back of the café is a hallway adorned with a glow-in-the-dark display of the cosmos. Broken machines and fragile open-air displays are explained by homemade cardboard signs. The café tables and shelves are mostly filled with books about UFO conspiracies and publications that remind me of the Whole Earth Catalog. Upon asking the man who runs the bar where the books came from, he responded that they were oddities he amassed over the years, that they weren’t for sale, but he would be happy to buy weird books from me if I was selling.
I wandered around the room, poking and touching everything exposed to open air, mostly to see what the limit to my touching might be. I leafed through the framed photographs of sideshow freaks and even stood on one of the tables’ stools to browse the top rows of the miniature library. Aside from a few concerned glances, the museum staff didn’t seem to notice or care about my “bad” museum behavior. Based on these observations, it seemed even more bizarre to me that the other patrons passing through the cafe treated it like a hallway gallery. The combination of chairs, tables, books, and beer in Beatnik Bob’s—not to mention the interactive nature of other parts of the museum—clearly does not demand the formal viewing requested by traditional museums.
As strange of a museum it may be, the continuation of Cassilly’s project is still a series of self-portraits of American history. It represents not only how its creators saw themselves but how everyone who visits it places his/herself in relation to history and its home inside our present. We see how those who lived before us existed and regulate our behavior so as to emulate their accomplishments and denounce their mistakes. We act the roles we understand ourselves to play, as the subjects of what will be someone else’s past.
As I exit Beatnik Bob’s, I notice the coin-operated fortuneteller. She is situated across a row of pinball machines, and like her neighbors, appears to be a relic from a 1970s American arcade. Behind glass, the gypsy automaton is displayed like an exotic zoo animal; she inspires the mysticized awe of a foreign oddity that, through its spectacular display, affirms the conquering power of Western imperialism. Someone has placed a cardboard sign in front of her that reads: “your future is bleak—no fortune, sorry.”
Zoya Brumberg is an emerging scholar and semi-professional flaneur [mostly] located in Chicago, IL. She holds an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a BA in Russian Language and Art Studio from Mount Holyoke College, and a plethora of sometimes useful knowledge. Her activities include mycology, carpentry, weight training, writing ghost stories, and getting lost.