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Steel
Thursday | 05 April, 2012 | 12:16 pm

Industrial playground

By Nick Wright

With salvaged metals, a St. Louis museum repurposes objects destined for scrap yard

April 2012- At St. Louis’ City Museum, the term “museum” is perhaps a misnomer. In this museum, idle metal for all intents—industrial, transportation, construction—eventually finds a new purpose. A nod to the fixtures of the post-industrial Midwest landscape, the City Museum’s collection of steel cranes, planes, a bus and bridge is arranged in an architectural jumble that’s part presentation, part playground.

Opened in 1997 inside the former 10-story International Shoe Co. building in St. Louis’ historic Garment District, an area of recent urban revitalization, the 129,000-square-foot City Museum extends upward and outward as an evolving, interactive labyrinth. The late Bob Cassilly, an artist who founded the museum and whose vision inspired its construction, salvaged objects when he could for the construction.

MonstroCity, the museum’s marquee attraction built on the exterior, is by and large the most metal-focused area, says Mary Levi, one of the museum’s welders. “MonstroCity is mostly salvaged materials,” she says. “We rarely get new materials—we’ll get bar stock, flat bar, angle, channel when we do big structural projects.”

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The chaotically organized MonstroCity is a massive hodgepodge including a blue steel crane, copper-covered cupola, catwalks and a fire truck. People can climb into two elevated airplane fuselages, Saber 40 models from Perryville, Mo., which are perched above MonstroCity and connected with steel cage tunnels.

The highest airplane belonged to Wayne Newton and the other owned by the FBI, according to Rick Erwin, museum director.

MonstroCity is buttressed in some places by steel I-beams salvaged from a demolished railroad bridge. Visitors climb through slinky-like mild steel tunnels that snake throughout the structure with no dead ends, so they can move across spans and to the building.

Levi says constructing much of the museum often is achieved through trial and error, as some aspects can be more problematic than others, for example, determining how wide walkways need to be. At first glance, the structures appear to be built free-form, but the construction team has to follow the same structural engineering requirements as any worksite to obtain permits.

“We use regularly building code for pickets and handrails and an even more specific playground code to meet for other things,” she adds. “You’d be surprised how specific slides end up being.”

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Above and below
The museum’s roof section, named Atop the City, has an equally surreal appeal. Along with a steel skeleton covered in fiberglass dome containing a rope swing, a school bus from nearby Roxana, Ill., sticks out over the roof’s edge.

Although the middle floors of the International Building are lofts and event space, visitors can descend on metal chutes from the 10th floor through the Enchanted Caves and Shoe Shafts, which are leftover from the International Shoe Co.

“If they worked on one floor, [the shoes would] go to another floor through these chutes,” says Levi. In other sections, the crew installed two giant brass ship propellers against a column and reworked mangled rebar into a staircase.

The City Museum’s construction crew fabricates most of the new pieces in-house. Levi says the crew mainly stick welds materials because it often occurs in an outdoor setting where MIG welding can be problematic. To make sure the museum’s elements are inviting for kids while retaining a raw look, Levi says the crew will grind and polish sharp edges.

“Kids have much softer hands than you have, so it’s a matter of making sure everything is to a finished level,” she adds. “Sometimes you sacrifice an aesthetic to make it safer.”

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The City Museum’s most recent addition is the interior Tree House, an ascending two-story spiral of mild steel bars mixed with wood elements. From the top is a slide back to the bottom. The crew will finish the installation of an exterior spiral staircase and expects to land another plane for the roof.

“At this point, we have a pretty good handle of what works, what doesn’t, and it’s just the creative genius deciding what’s going to go where,” Levi says. MM

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