Most Saturdays, we host a few dozen “gentle riders” on the Esotouric tour bus, revealing the lost lore of Los Angeles through visits to landmarks both notable and obscure. Because most of our passengers are Southland locals, we don’t offer tours during the busy Christmas season, which gives us the opportunity to play tourist ourselves. Mid-December found us on a breakneck architecture-rich road trip along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Join us, do, for a virtual journey (map) from St. Louis to Louisville ahead of the brutal December storms.
The City Museum in St. Louis is our kind of place.
The vision of late artist/developer Bob Cassilly, a mad genius who once tackled a maniac who was attacking Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, it’s housed in an enormous shoe factory that’s been repurposed as an exhibition space, folk art environment, playground, oddball retail mall, apartment building and catch-all for the accumulated collections of people who heed the call to preserve endangered buildings, or at least large sections of their facades.
Our visit was carefully scheduled to coincide with the museum’s lowest visitor count of the year, on a sleepy pre-Christmas Wednesday. It was perfect: there were more staff members in sight than customers. Occasionally, we’d hear somebody shrieking from around the bend, or run into a family creeping through the art caverns in the basement, but it was mostly like having a golden ticket to explore after hours.
We admired the world’s largest pencil, crafted by Ashrita Furman, who breaks records as his spiritual practice. The pencil is 76′ long, weighs 21,500 pounds, and if you rub up against the point, you’ll get graphite on your trousers.
One small wing called Art City is dedicated to hands-on crafts. Here we sat down with Marion Nichols, better known as the Snowflakey Lady, for a tutorial in the delicate art of kirigami paper cutting.
We told Marion what type of patterns we’d like to cut–an owl for Richard, “something art nouveau” for me–and she swiftly pulled two tightly folded fans of paper from the array before her. Then we companionably cut and chatted, learning all about Marion’s creative enterprises, which now include a book so fans can make her snowflake designs at home.
But it wouldn’t be the same without the Snowflakey Lady on the other side of the table, ready to take over when, in my case, the wee inner swirls of the art nouveau plant forms became too difficult to cut cleanly, even with tiny scissors. Marion made it look easy, then sealed the snowflakes in plastic for the long trip back to California. (Richard insisted on taking a picture of us with “my” finished work, hence the abashed expression.)
Wandering around the lower floors, we admired facades from long-demolished buildings…
A collection of decorative doorknobs glowing like precious jewels in the winter sun…
A dragon gargoyle crouched to pounce…
Shelf upon shelf of salvaged ornament…
Including this delightful lion, his deep cast eyes meant to be seen from far below…
And a gilded elevator cage, saved from some terrible scrapyard fate, but cursed to be forever stationary….
Much as we love architectural decoration, though, the accumulation of wonders started to make our eyes cross. It went on and on and on!
We’d already taken a quick peek at the artificial caves under the factory floor, and we returned there to commune with the strange figures hidden in the rocks.
Above us, people screamed as they slid down ten stories on the old shoe conveyor slides, while the automatic pipe organ groaned out a maudlin tune.
And we posed for a rare joint photo among the dragons, crystal fissures, stalactites and crouching beasties.
The caverns eventually let us out onto a cat walk, and this led to the famous Puking Pig, a piece of scavenged metal art that has maimed at least one overeager City Museum patron.
Giddy and damp from our encounter with the Puking Pig, we went back to the architectural displays, where we admired the salvaged ornamentation from three WPA-funded elementary schools built in Hammond, Indiana in the mid-1930s. Although all have been demolished, the school board ultimately recognized the importance of the terra cotta panels by Louis Sullivan’s chief designer George Grant Elmslie, and some were removed before the wrecking machines came. These delicate panels represent the last great gasp of the Prairie School, shot through with a topical Art Deco twist. It was a thrill to see them.
But that thrill was soon eclipsed when we stumbled onto an enormous display of decorative panels from Adler and Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange (built 1893-94, demolished 1972), laid out on a long wall just as they would have been on the building.
Yes, they’re beautiful–but for any serious preservationist, they’re also highly charged. For this was the condemned building that Richard Nickel, photographer, historic preservation activist and great champion of the then-neglected Sullivan, was salvaging alone when the floor collapsed beneath him and took his life. He wasn’t found for weeks.
The urge to protect important buildings, to document them in photographs, to fight the grim political and economic powers that contrive to destroy them, to sneak inside and take things that would otherwise be crushed–it’s all very familiar. These panels are monuments to the world-changing work done in the Sullivan office, to be sure–but they’re also a living shrine to Richard Nickel’s martyrdom. We were grateful to encounter them on a day when no other people were around, so we could breathe a silent prayer for his immortal soul.
There were whole floors of the City Museum that we hadn’t seen, including the rooftop and most of the outdoor sculpture garden. But the day was cold and the hour getting late, and our brains and hearts were full to bursting. Besides, we wanted to leave something to see on our next visit.
Farewell, wonderful place! You lived up to all the hype, and then some.