Last summer's weekend vacation took the Steele Family to St. Louis for a little exploring. As noted in my previous recent installment
on St. Louis, this is a city much like Buffalo with an impeccable architectural pedigree and all the protracted urban ills of America's rust belt. That means there are plenty of lessons these two great cities can learn from each other. Lessons such as what you can do with a giant white elephant of a factory building other than tear it down.
St. Louis, like Buffalo, has done plenty of tearing down and like Buffalo, St. Louis has also done some restoring as well. I was last in St. Louis about 15 years ago, and at that time there was a lot of restoring that needed to be done. Today the city still seems bent on eliminating a lot of its historic wealth but has also done a tremendous job of saving major historic assets. The first time I was in the city I marveled at the massive but mostly empty warehouses on Washington Avenue. This is a major street that runs through downtown St. Louis. It is lined on each side for several blocks with very large, very old loft buildings. 15 years ago or so the street was moribund seemingly waiting for the wrecker to usher in some of that 'oh so valuable' surface parking. In some cases the wrecker did do its job but I was pleasantly surprised on this last trip to find that much of the street has been reenergized with human life and activity. Most of these old masterpieces have been renovated with spectacular results shaping what has become one of the most popular parts of the city. The formerly dead and dusty streets are now alive with restaurants and residents. The idea of of St. Louis without this stretch of big old buildings is probably unthinkable to the locals now. Isn't it funny how restoration and newly energized historic treasures can have that effect?
One of these repurposed old St. Louis buildings in particular is just a a block off Washington. It was once a shoe factory and has less (none) of the ornate historical decoration that its Washington Avenue neighbors have. Its tall plain walls, as in many of Buffalo's big old factories, are pierced by massive steel gridded windows designed to flood the work floors with precious daylight. These kinds of factory buildings are not easily appreciated as architecturally important. They don't have the instant appeal of intricately carved stone and wood. But they do lend themselves well to many uses and once restored they prove their worth tenfold. One need look no further than Buffalo's burgeoning Larkin District to understand the appeal and financial value an old plain factory building can have once it has been restored. Cities across the nation have recognized that obsolete industrial buildings are anything but obsolete when it comes to attracting new life to the city core. The old shoe factory in St. Louis has been converted to one of the most unique places anywhere in the country. It is now home to City Museum
From the museum's web site:
Welcome to City Museum, where the imagination runs wild!
Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, the museum is an eclectic mixture of children's playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects. The brainchild of internationally acclaimed artist Bob Cassilly, a classically trained sculptor and serial entrepreneur, the museum opened for visitors in 1997 to the riotous approval of young and old alike.
Cassilly and his longtime crew of 20 artisans have constructed the museum from the very stuff of the city; and, as a result, it has urban roots deeper than any other institutions'. Reaching no farther than municipal borders for its reclaimed building materials, City Museum boasts features such as old chimneys, salvaged bridges, construction cranes, miles of tile, and even two abandoned planes!
"City Museum makes you want to know," says Cassilly. "The point is not to learn every fact, but to say, 'Wow, that's wonderful.' And if it's wonderful, it's worth preserving.
It is hard to describe City Museum in a way that truly conveys what it is like. It has tunnels and holes and hollow logs to climb through. You can walk on airplane wings and cages eight storeys up. You can slide down ten-storey spiral chutes that were originally designed for dropping shoe parts through the multi floor factory. Dark caves bring you to unknown locations on other levels and wild art and fragments of urban human effort from decades past cover the walls, floors, and ceilings. The museum bursts from the confines of the building to cover the roof and flies out over the adjacent parking lot with the wild energy that is too often absent from today's sterilized and safe urban design standards.
The City Museum is a giant surreal jungle gym that appeals to kids and adults (it is open until midnight on weekends). This kind of building reuse is unique because it is the creative effort of an individual and his collaborators. It's not something that can be planned. It is something that just comes along - born out of the wonderful mixture of a city's creative human capital and the built assets handed down through the decades. The parts and pieces of this museum could have been assemble anyplace but it would not be the place it is now without this old factory. I have no doubt that this old factory building was in no small part an important inspiration for the museum's creation and success. Can we afford to continue removing these historic assets like this in Buffalo with no equal value in return? Parking lots, either permanent or temporary are not equal in value and are not progress. Downtown Buffalo's current state is ample proof of that. Perhaps there is not a City Museum in Buffalo's future but that is no excuse for eliminating the possibility of something else just as valuable. The last thing Buffalo needs is more dead parking lot streets. Let's stop making any more of them.