Whimsy and a Ferris wheel highlight City Museum's new rooftop attractions
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2009 - There's a science to working a Ferris wheel, especially when it's on the 11th story of a building.
"I have to balance little kids with (adults)," said Michael Kraichely, who operates the Ferris wheel located 11-stories high, on the City Museum's rooftop.
He distributes riders so the weight at the top of the Ferris wheel counterbalances the weight at the bottom. If one end of the wheel gets too heavy, the ride won't be smooth.
The Ferris wheel is one of several new installations on the rooftop, which opened to the public June 5. About 700 people played on the rooftop from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. during its debut.
There's less clutter on the museum's rooftop than in its indoor tunnels. Without a ceiling, the space feels vast. Water shoots in the air and lands in a fountain pool full of stepping stones. To the fountain's right are tables and a wide slide that people can scale with a rope. Beside the slide is more patio space and even a little snack bar.
On the opposite side of the roof, a metal bridge leads to a cage, which serves as a great lookout over St. Louis. Slide lovers can trek higher, toward the praying mantis, and go down a three-story slide.
Bob Cassilly, the museum's owner, and company worked six years to realize his vision for the rooftop.
"This is Bob's world," said Kara Wall, the public relations representative for the City Museum. "When he creates something, it's really just incredible."
While watching their vision come to life last Friday night, Cassilly and other employees suggested opening the bus to everybody to explore.
"We do things on a whim here," Wall said.
Artisans continue work on the school bus that rests precariously on the building's edge. The artisans moved the bus' seats flush against the wall to ease navigation toward the front of the bus. The bus -- one of the better known symbols of the City Museum -- is expected to open to the public.
Visitors have two ways to get to the roof -- elevators or by climbing a 10-story spiral staircase. Coming down, they can ride the elevators -- or the 10-story metal spiral slide that was a shaft in the shoe factory that once occupied the building.
"I came all the way from California just to ride this slide," said Humberto Covarrubias, before he began his 10-story spinning descent.
About 15 artisans work with Cassilly to execute his innovations, such as the spiral slide and school bus access.
"They're not just typical construction workers," Wall said.
Dave Blum, a City Museum artisan, welded seats together in the school bus. He said he has some creative freedom, but Cassilly's vision is boss.
"If this were a math equation, Bob would be the answer, and you (artisans) would show the work," Wall said to Blum.
With all the attention on the new attractions, some smaller details might go unnoticed, such as the overhead projector tops stuck in one of the rooftop walls. Or the men's bathroom sign depicting a rooster silhouette, an homage to the mysterious chickens that live on the roof. Or the two giant yellow parachutes hanging over most of the rooftop -- and looking like jellyfish when the wind blows.
Some of the distinctive pieces that have been on the rooftop for years have become incorporated into the rooftop's landscape. The praying mantis rears its head and legs behind the three-story slide. A stone elephant squirts water into the fountain pool.
Cassilly wants to control the environment in which he puts his art, Wall said. Therefore, it's not all about the physical surroundings, but the atmosphere, too. After 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the lights in the spiral slide and staircase shaft go out. Patrons who pay after 10 p.m. those nights get a flashlight.
At the bottom of the shaft sits an old pipe organ. Guest organists perform or the museum sets the organ to auto play. Either way, the shaft's acoustics do the performance justice and add a spooky ambience to slide rides.
The rooftop -- which is expected to be open year round, depending on the weather -- is open during museum hours and costs $5 on top of the $12 museum admission.
The Ferris wheel stands out at night when it lights up over the city. "Rumor is (Bob) bought it from gypsies in southern Illinois," Wall said.
Regardless of its origins, the wheel contributes to City Museum's risky appeal. While stressing that nothing is really dangerous, Wall said:
"Our whole theory is to have the appearance of danger."
Christian Losciale, an intern at the Beacon, is a student in journalism at the University of Missouri.