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Sometimes Bob Cassilly is hard to understand. He talks fast; at times he mumbles. Then there's what he actually says. When he talks about what his plans are -- though "plans" is too strict a term -- what his ideas are, his spiel can be either difficult to follow or hard to believe. If anybody other than Bob were saying these things, the reaction might be a dismissive chuckle: Yeah, right. Won't happen. Too ambitious, too unusual.
Like his latest idea.
To find where Bob is headed next, drive past the trucking firms and the City Workhouse along the two-mile straightaway of Hall Street in North St. Louis, turn right on Riverview Drive, and get one of the few decent glimpses of the Mississippi River within the city limits. Aside from the narrow strip of green between Riverview and the river, there's not much else. To the left there are vacant lots, a scrap-iron yard and, finally, about two miles short of the city limits and the I-270 bridge, there's an abandoned cement plant. Not much to look at, until you hear Bob talk about it.
"If there were ruins like this in Europe, they'd build a park around it," says Bob of the plant that's been empty for more than 20 years. As he looks at the 250- foot-tall smokestack, the enormous cement silos and the skeletal remains of the plant, he's positively awestruck. "These are some of the most fantastic things. Look at these incredible works. They're everything a mall in the year 2000 is not. They're massive and overbuilt and ambitious, simple, beautiful forms. There are thousands of these plants, and they tore down half of them."
Then, wistfully, as if to heighten the tragic aspect of these ruins, he adds, "The world is made of cement."
For Bob, this isn't just about giant structures -- it's history and art and architecture and even evolution: "They talk about historic districts and stuff like that, but one of the main things is, our architecture is basically copying shit from Europe. But our industry, it's kind of like jazz, it's an American, original thing. Why not look at it for what it is? It's impressive. It might be threatening, but you can't help but be impressed by it."
Bob was so impressed by it, he's buying it. All 53 acres, including a 1,400-foot stretch of riverfront property, all for a shade under $2 million. What's he going to do with it?
There are two parts of his vision, though the skeptical might portray what he wants to do with the cement plant to be more hallucinatory than visionary. On the east side of Riverview Drive, on the 17 acres that front the Mississippi, Bob is collaborating with state agencies, nonprofits and maybe even the feds to put together a "Great Rivers Resource Center." The center would include an observation deck and a restaurant built over the river on pylons that were once used to dock barges.
The other part of what Bob wants to do is on the west side of Riverview, within the boundaries of the plant itself. If only some of what he wants to do with his new erector set comes true, the cement plant will be one world-class weird place, with a water slide winding through giant metal bins, visitors throwing rocks off a smokestack and giant obsolete machines scattered around the grounds, still grinding away.
When Bob says he has an idea, no matter how bizarre it may sound, chances are it's workable and he has the means to back it up. That does not mean it necessarily will happen exactly as he predicts it, because his modus operandi is largely improvisational, but as an entrepreneur and as a sculptor, it's not good policy to write him off just because he sounds goofy. He is goofy, but he's also shrewd. Just look at the wildly popular City Museum, where Bob and Gail Cassilly pulled a rabbit out of their hat, surprising skeptics across the region. The downtown attraction has had more than 600,000 visitors since it opened in 1997.
In other words, if Bob Cassilly has a vision for an old broken-down industrial site -- no matter how magical or maniacal the vision -- it's best not to bet against Bob.
Standing with his back to the Mississippi, Cassilly points across the road to the collection of white and beige concrete behemoths that made up the old Lafarge (formerly Portland) Cement Co. When he first examined the site, Cassilly says he thought of ancient Egypt. "I thought, I'll get bargeloads of sand, fill it with sand and have camels in here -- make it stark and bleak. But then I figured there wasn't much market for that."
But ancient Egypt wasn't good enough for him. No, Cassilly saw something deeper and primordial in this abandoned corner of old St. Louis. He reached back -- 2 billion years back -- to the Precambrian Era, a time when life first began in the form of calcareous algae and invertebrates, emerging from the ooze and slime. And he had a kernel of an idea.
"There were no predators yet, so everything started and everything fell out. Things worked themselves out," Cassilly explains. The life forms that didn't make the Darwinian cut, in Cassilly's view at least, are like the bulky metal machines that no longer have a profitable function in industry and were discarded -- until of course Cassilly found them.