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St. Louis City Museum: 'Part Playground, Part Artist Pavilion' (PHOTOS)

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Scott Mayerowitz, Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- Don't expect to find the Mona Lisa here. Or a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.

Instead, this museum features a 10-story slide that whizzes guests of all ages from the roof to a subterranean cave.

Welcome to City Museum, an ever-evolving art project that is unlike any museum you have ever seen. In fact, calling it a museum is a bit of a stretch. The converted shoe warehouse is closer to a mad scientist's workshop than a cultural institution.

That doesn't mean it isn't fun.

There's an oversized ball pit, a miniature railroad, rooftop Ferris wheel and countless hands-on exhibits. Throw in a 1924 Wurlitzer pipe organ, neon signs, preserved butterflies and the world's largest pencil and you have one of the world's most eclectic collections. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)

"It's hard to describe. It's really just an evolving sculpture in itself," says Rick Erwin, the museum's director. "It's part playground, part artist pavilion."

The museum, which saw 710,000 visitors last year, is a lasting tribute to the imagination of its late founder, Bob Cassilly, an artist who purchased the shoe warehouse in 1993. In, 1995, Cassilly started construction and two years later City Museum opened.

His vision for City Museum is credited by many with helping to bring people back to the downtown neighborhood where the museum is located. Once filled with vacant industrial buildings, the area is now dotted with trendy restaurants, clubs and apartments. The museum's warehouse also houses artist studios, luxury lofts, a catering business and a company that sells fake flowers and Christmas trees. Cassilly died in an accident in September while working on a new project, converting an old cement plant into an amusement park just outside St. Louis.

There was never a plan for how to assemble City Museum. Parts just came together. A school bus was placed on the roof. An old aircraft was acquired. A large collection of bee hives, bugs and stuffed birds made it into the museum after a building maintenance worked let it be known he had been collecting them since he was 13.

Today, the eclectic mix of art and artifacts continues to grow with a statue from a Bob's Big Boy restaurant, a sign – never quite explained – announcing "the dark side of the corn dog" and a skateless skateboard park where visitors can play (but not skate) on the ramps and half-pipes. Rag-doll making classes are offered near a woman who advertises her services as "Story teller and snowflake lady. NOT a Fortune-teller!"

An arts and crafts area and floor-to-ceiling chalkboard ensure that this is a hand-on experience for all.

"If you're staring at a statue, there's a feeling there. But once you climb on that statue – and you become a part of that statue – it's a whole different feeling," Erwin says.

During the day, children run through the halls, fly down slides, crawl on catwalks, press their face against the glass of an onsite aquarium and snake their way through caves.

One boy recently shouted toward his dad with gleeful enthusiasm: "I'm going to go explore that tunnel. If it leads somewhere cool, I'll come back and get you." A few moments later, he came back saying: "It goes pretty far, let's go explore!"

At night the museum takes on a new life. On weekends, lights are turned off, flashlights are handed out and guests are left to explore until 1 a.m. in near darkness. If that's too spooky, visitors can head up to the roof and sip $7 mojitos.

There really isn't a theme or any type of order to the museum. The philosophy, Erwin explains, is more "organized chaos, play it by ear and see what happens."

For example, the museum was offered a donation of lawn mower tires. "We didn't want those tires, but we wanted to keep them out of the landfill," Erwin says.

So, the tires were used to build a new wall.

That's fitting for a museum with no dead ends. Every hallway loops around to something else in an effort not to kill the curiosity and momentum of guests.

"People get mad at us all the time for not having a map," Erwin says. "We just want you to explore."

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