When I was 10 years old, I had a recurring dream about going through a tunnel. It was big and see-through, plunging through floors, snaking through tree houses, corkscrewing in and out of oblivion and seeming to go on forever. Sometimes the passageway deposited me in a room full of giant ramps and slides and broken-down machinery. Though the dream felt vaguely dangerous, it wasn’t a nightmare. I usually woke up exhilarated, as if some unexplored corner of my brain had been tweaked in a way I couldn’t explain. Eventually the dreams stopped.
Recently, I was on vacation with my wife and kids in St. Louis, my mind fuzzed over from years of diaper duty and budget meetings. My wife had heard about City Museum from a friend, but we arrived knowing almost nothing about it. Before we entered, I saw children crawling through an outdoor metal mesh tunnel toward the fuselage of a gutted airplane dangling five stories overhead. Then I saw twisted shards of Technicolor metal jutting from an old office building like some massive disaster that had never been cleaned up, and . . . Lord, is that a school bus hanging off the roof?
As my brain sparked with nebulous electricity and fumbled through the most elusive déjà vu of my life, it finally hit me: My dreams had come to life. In a warehouse in downtown St. Louis. The feeling was disorienting but also strangely comfortable—like an old song I had forgotten but still knew all the words to.
The surreal interior of the 600,000-square-foot building appeared to have been plucked straight from my visual cortex. Tunnels under the floor. Ginormous slides to nowhere. Suspended metal tubes snaking through hollow logs, en route to other floors and thrills. I gaped at a giant pipe organ, a castle turret, a bank vault, and a human hamster wheel. Thousands of kids and adults, some clad in headlamps and knee pads, had advanced beyond the gawking phase and were scurrying to and fro like giddy mice, popping out from holes in the wall, giggling.
For an adventurous child who wants nothing more than to ditch his parents for a few hours, City Museum is as close to heaven as you can get. I overheard a joyous negotiation between two amped-up teenage boys—both of whom looked like they generally found the whole world to be an unbearable drag—that ended with a pact to do the giant ball pit, then the Enchanted Caves, and then the room full of robots.
My own exploration felt equally electrifying and frustrating. On one hand, I was living out my dream, climbing through a human Slinky-like tube from a beer tank at Anheuser-Busch. On the other, that dream hurt like hell. If my brain was suddenly 9 years old again, my body was still in its 40s, and the place’s libertarian approach toward safety meant constant bumps and scrapes. Once, I found myself stuck in a dark tunnel, and it took a good five minutes to Houdini my body out.
Here, even the most responsible of adults struggle to monitor their offspring; in my own dazed wanderlust, I forgot my children entirely. I sent my 6-year-old son down a slide with no idea what was at the bottom, and then wandered off with no maps, no signs, and no destination. Eventually, my son popped up at the circus trapeze class on the third floor, no worse for the wear and full of breathless tales of the world’s largest pair of underpants.
For a museum, there’s not much traditional learning going on; it’s more unhinged, unscripted adventure. That was the whole idea when Bob Cassilly conceived the place in the ’90s. An eccentric sculptor obsessed with repurposing ordinary objects, Cassilly envisioned a giant fun house made of found and recycled items, the kind of place where anything fun (say, a 3,000-pound steel praying mantis) was fair game. Then he and his crew built it. The place has continued adding on and getting weirder, even after Cassilly’s suspicious 2011 death in a bulldozer on the site of an amusement park he was building in north St. Louis.
After four hours, I finally reached my destination: the opening to a slide that spiraled down, down, down, all the way to the first floor, back to where my family—and adulthood—waited. I breathed it all in one last time, the aroma of tacos and slushies, the yelps of kids scampering across the giant splash pond, the rare childhood dream that was better in reality. Then I sighed and hurled myself down.