By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
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.
Part of his plan for the cement plant is to oil the machines and put them to use, placing the large, outmoded machines all over the place, amid the greenery and restored wetlands, to illustrate the similarity between the passing of the Industrial Revolution and the end of the Precambrian Era, the earliest geological period, a time when numerous life forms became extinct. It's a topic that Cassilly expands on without any encouragement, even if the listener is not well versed about geologic times before the Paleozoic Era.
Already he's had hundreds of dump trucks drop dirt at the plant, filling up holes and leveling the terrain. He's personally using a bulldozer to build up a wall-like berm around the perimeter. He wants to transform the plant into a "fantasy world" that includes a water slide, underground tunnels, a spiral staircase to the top of the smokestack where visitors can heave stones back down to earth and ... well, he's just getting warmed up with ideas.
With a smirk on his face that would make George W. Bush look like an altar boy, Cassilly compares his ambition for the plant to what he might have done as a kid: "You'll be able to do all the things that were normally illegal, I suppose, do all the things kids used to sneak into a plant to do, looking for adventure."
Climbing up to the tops of towers, sliding down, throwing things from on high, walking across catwalks, getting inside a smokestack, crawling underground, swimming, that sort of thing. He's reluctant to put a label on what the place will be. "Everyone keeps saying 'Bob's World,'" Cassilly admits, but he's not thinking theme park. "If you say Six Flags, it'd make me vomit." How about calling it an art park? "I wouldn't want to call it that. Nobody would come."
It's more of a museum featuring landscape and outdoor sculpture than an amusement park. "It's a giant art installation you can play in. It's anti-elitist. Arts have alienated everyone in the world. This is a place to bring together different disciplines. Other people may want to start helping -- they'll want to do something here, maybe have a little piece of it."
Cassilly is anxious to show off his new playground as he drives across Riverview Drive and into the cement plant, past the dirt walls built along the boundary. As he pulls up in front of the largest building in the complex, he starts to play tour guide as he enters a gigantic barnlike structure that looks to be more than eight stories tall, with metal siding that's partially torn away.
"There's three great horned owls in this building. They're pretty cool. They're huge," Cassilly says. He gestures to a low, flat area in front of the building partially encircled by high dirt walls, explaining that the area, and the inside of the building, would be the "water park."
The top of the building can be reached by a series of metal steps and catwalks, and that's where the slides would start. There's a huge drop inside the building where the trains used to unload materials. He wants to keep the roof on but peel off much of the siding to reveal the metal frame of the building, letting in more sunlight. Around the building he describes the dirt walls being built up as "parapet walls all along the property, like walled cities had a first line of defense, a second line of defense."
"Then there's going to be all these sculpted kind of caterpillarlike forms that will come up from the pool below. Then the pool will go all the way into the building here. This will all be dug deeper." He points up, to a series of huge metal bins that start at the top of the building. "You go in here, and there's all these giant bins in here, so there'll be giant waterfalls from bin to bin, with water slides that will slide down from pool to pool to pool, and then it will come out here," he says, pointing to the large, flat area in front of the building that will serve as the giant pool. "Then this wet water area will meander down through the property."
As Cassilly walks to the next idea, dump trucks continue to enter the property to deposit fill from the A.G. Edwards expansion near Jefferson Avenue and Olive Street, or as Cassilly describes it, "from behind Beffa's," referring to incognito lunch spot for local celebs. With an unnaturally straight face, Cassilly says close to 10,000 loads of free dirt have been dumped from that project. He says accepting the dirt when it was available was a "random act of opportunism," something that Cassilly the Player knows how to handle.
From the future home of the world's only water slide in a cement plant, Cassilly starts to explain how a wetlands will mix in with huge concrete buildings and large obsolete machines. By juxtaposing 19th- and early-20th-century machines with wetlands, he intends to compare and contrast the phasing out of machines during the waning of the Industrial Revolution to the biological mutations that occurred in the Precambrian explosion 2 billion years ago.
"There was no life, then all of a sudden life tried everything. It came to all these dead ends. They were fascinating dead ends, but they were dead ends. So I want to compare the Precambrian explosion with the Industrial Revolution, which was the equivalent of the Precambrian explosion. Mechanically, things became wide open, things exploded with possibilities. There were 50,000 kinds of cars. Now there's one car -- they all look the same. There were all this simple kind of mechanical machines and monster things."
Not surprisingly, Cassilly has a collection of old, outmoded machines. And, of course, he says they all appear to be in working order. He says he has a "million pounds of monster machines" in storage, including "giant steel punchers, big giant trip-hammers, a planer that has a giant electromagnet that clamps on these master pieces of steel and goes through it, and there's these other things that chop steel."
Stacking these implements of industry throughout the plant will create a theme, he thinks.
"I want to have these galleries of these dying machines," Cassilly says. "It'd kind of be like a morality play. These machines would be up on these multistory buildings cranking away kind of like Nazis, then I'll have this industrial stuff, then I'll have these green wetlands going through, with reeds and stuff and reflecting lakes. I'll have these raw, industrial ruins combined with this nature; I'll balance off the two."
Well, in any morality play, somebody has to play the heavy, and in Cassilly's fevered brain, the old machines are cast as the Gestapo. Asked whether the machine backdrop is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's character who gets caught in the gears of a giant machine in the 1936 movie Modern Times, Cassilly is quick to buy into that analogy. Just how many folks fresh from a dip in the cement bins will be hip to the Precambrian explosion or willing to ponder man's relationship to machine is unclear. But Cassilly has other things in mind for those unwilling or unable to wrestle with such dense topics. How about throwing stones off a 250-foot-high smokestack?
Less than 50 yards from where the water slide may end up, there's a metal walkway about 25 feet above the ground that leads to the smokestack. Cassilly has an idea: Put a circular stairwell around the outside of the stack all the way to the top. Then, anyone at the top could throw down bricks or stones, aiming at targets painted on the bottom of the flooded area around the base of the stack, or there could be floating targets in the pound.
"It'd be an event," Cassilly beams. "People would be horrified. Kids would drag their parents up there.
"There's a huge pent-up demand for throwing stuff off these things. We climbed up on top of the chimney, and there was all these loose rocks up there. We threw them all off. It was kind of flooded down at the bottom. That's the random chance -- there happened to be a puddle after a rain. You could make targets and stuff. It's pretty far up there."
Hold on, Bob. What about people who are walking across the bridge to get to the spiral staircase on the smokestack?
"Yeah, I forgot about the bridge. We'd have to do something about that," Cassilly admits, but he is not deterred from his rock-throwing concept. "I haven't worked out all the details, but the theory's sound. Everyone likes to throw rocks. It's like if you're selling a mass-consumer object. Everybody uses toothpaste. Underneath every person is this desire to heave rocks off of high places."
Brushing your teeth, heaving rocks -- much the same thing. Asked yet again how he's going to describe his mutation of a vacant cement plant, he feigns disinterest in image.
"Let somebody else figure out what to call it. I just thought it was a perfect place to play with equipment, work on big projects and do all the things that are fun in the world. Do the things that you can't normally do anymore, just because there's no vacant lots, there's no pyramids, no slides," Cassilly says, and before the listener can try to make a connection between the paucity of vacant lots, pyramids and slides with the modern-day lack of fun, the tour continues, with Cassilly walking away from the chimney and toward a structure that has a row of four concrete silos. "You got to go up this one -- it's amazing."
Amazing is not what most folks would call this. Abandoned, yes. Vacant, useless, a relic of a bygone era, another tombstone in the industrial cemetery that is the city of St. Louis -- it's all that. But amazing? Surely Cassilly must be wearing rose-tinted contacts.
But everything is contagious, even indiscriminate enthusiasm. After 20 years of neglect, the limestone dust is thick on the way up to the top of the silo, but the structure seems sound. Climbing up the metal stairs past several platforms Cassilly throws off a thought that he won't pursue.
"I was thinking this would be a really neat vertical nightclub. You could put glass all across the front here, and with all these platforms," Cassilly says, as he keeps going up the steps. "But I hate nightclubs."
Once at the top of the silos, there's a half-circle balcony with a metal railing at the edge. It doesn't take much imagination to think that if people were cavorting on these grounds anyway, this might be a good place to put a bar or restaurant. The view of the river and a distant downtown are first-rate.
"It's an incredible view," Cassilly beams as he looks to the south. "The river goes right up and it makes St. Louis look like the Emerald City from here because the river goes up and it turns, right in front of the city, so it looks like river just goes up and ends at the city. It goes down the other way, beyond the corner."
"But look at this, it's on the river, it's natural there," Cassilly says as he points across to the tree-lined banks of the Illinois side of the river. Then he looks down at the concrete wastes around him. "And it has an incredible infrastructure of useless objects that only I could love."
There has to some use made of the inside of the silos, but that hasn't been decided yet. But then as Cassilly riffs on about what he may or may not do, it's becomes clear that nothing is decided yet, other than he wants the place, dump trucks are arriving daily with fill, it's got a great view and Cassilly has plenty of ideas. Let's face it, when asked what the price tag on the cement-plant bizarro world will be, Cassilly says, "somewhere between $5 million and $20 million."
After working on the site for the last four to six weeks, Cassilly finally made it to a neighborhood meeting last week of the village of Riverview. With the plant lying dormant for so long, the neighbors behind the complex were anxious about what all the commotion was about.
"They sort of just stared at me when I talked," Cassilly says about the meeting as he stands on top of the silo. "They asked, 'What about the buildings? You say you're going to save the buildings?' And I said, 'I'm only going to save the beautiful concrete ones.' And they said, 'What beautiful buildings?'"
At this Cassilly laughs and gestures to the houses behind the fence in back of the silo. "I guess it looks pretty bad from over there."
But then the host of the meeting got up and told the audience about the City Museum, Cassilly's giant turtles by Highway 40 near Hampton Avenue and his success with downtown real estate.
"They all cheered when I was done," Cassilly says. "They were all positive. They just weren't prepared for it."
Though plans for the cement plant haven't even reached the drawing board, on the other side of Riverview Drive, the process is further along for the combination observation deck/restaurant over the Mississippi. In this, Bob Cassilly is in cahoots with several state agencies, the trick being to find some common frequency for Cassilly and the governmental bureaucracies that are part of the mix. Cassilly guesses that the center could be finished by spring 2002, a timetable that would mesh with the plans of agency folks on both sides of the river who want the area spruced up for the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was launched in 1704 a few miles up the river.
The riverfront site is tentatively being called the "Great Rivers Resource Center." The state departments of Conservation and Natural Resources are the lead sponsors of the project, with the state departments of tourism and transportation participating. Anne Rivers Mack of Trailnet Inc. is running interference for the project, as part of Confluence Greenway, the consortium of organizations promoting riverside recreation and conservation along the banks of the Mississippi, from downtown northward to the entry points of the Illinois and Missouri rivers. Mack says HOK Inc. was doing feasibility studies to find a site for the center when Cassilly surfaced offering the cement plant.
"The idea is to pull people off the highway and tell them they're in this incredible area of international significance, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. People in St. Louis, we just don't get it. People outside St. Louis seem to want to remind us that it's an incredibly important feature, both historically and with regard to our environment," says Mack. That the project also got an added boost from Cassilly, with his track record with the City Museum, was a bonus, according to Mack. "He not only gets things done, he has a perception of things that will be engaging. That's a talent, a real skill, an art form. It's a tremendous opportunity to work with someone like Bob."
What Cassilly wants to do is to enhance a steel gridwork trestle that goes 100 feet out into the river. Formerly used to support a pipeline that loaded barges with cement, the trestle will be used as the base of an observation deck and a glassed-in restaurant that will extend out over the river.
Cassilly's plan is to have a private-public partnership run a combination river center/ restaurant that would be a destination point for locals and tourists. He doesn't want to be in charge of either the restaurant or the center -- his years running Park Place Restaurant in Lafayette Square with his estranged wife, Gail, have cured him of that interest. He believes the view, the access to the river, the exhibits on the observation deck and the opportunity to wine and dine on the Mississippi will draw people. In addition to nearby I-270 and Riverview, the other means of reaching the center include the bike trail that extends to downtown and a ferry service that would be run connecting trips from downtown to the site and back.
"Right now, if you go up the bike path, you come all the way up here and demand an ice-cream cone or a soda or a beer or something and all there is that outhouse up there with a dripping faucet," says Cassilly, referring to a restroom in the adjacent city park. "You come in there parched and stick your mouth over it. You feel completely cheated."
Though Cassilly isn't interested in running the riverside portion of his 53-acre spread, he has some ideas. He wants to put a 100-foot water wheel next to one of the four pylons in the river, running river water back up onto the 10 acres east of Riverview. The water would meander back down to the river, through various holding ponds that would cleanse the water through plants like duckweed and cattails and through aeration. Trails along the green space would be defined, and the river would be made accessible to all by a series of ramps. He's talking about building caves into the banks of the river and putting sculptures of indigenous wildlife around the trail near the ponds.
The view from the trestle over the river appears to be far more rustic and bucolic than most stretches along the city. On the Illinois side is the wooded shoreline of Mosenthein Island. Looking south, the river disappears as it bends eastward, with downtown a faint glimmer in the distance. To the north, the crooked Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is on the horizon. This part of the river is not open for navigation because all barge traffic is diverted to the Chain of Rocks Canal behind Gabaret Island, close to two miles to the east.
In looking for a place to put an interactive center dealing with the Mississippi, most locations farther north would have views of Granite City Steel or Shell's Wood River refinery. As it is, the 4,300-acre expanse of the Columbia Bottoms at the juncture of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers is beginning to be opened up by the state since its recent purchase from the city. Hiking and biking trails are planned, as are some limited driving roads and hunting areas. On the Illinois side of the Mississippi and Missouri merger, the decrepit, neglected observation area on that shore is being replaced before 2004 by the $7 million Lewis & Clark Interpretative Center.
Jim Wilson, the outreach and education chief for the Mississippi River Unit of the Missouri Department of Conservation, says his agency is "quite interested" in working with Cassilly on the river center but that the "actual shape of the thing doesn't seem to have jelled yet." He went on to say the actual players haven't "jelled" yet, either. Let's hope he's not waiting on Bob to "jell." Wilson appears to know what he's dealing with in this venture.
"I've met Bob on several occasions down at City Museum, and I'm a great admirer of his creativity and his ability to pull things together. But that's at a personal level," says Wilson. "I only mean to say our agency doesn't have any kind of formal agreement with Bob at this point."
As for Cassilly's cockamamie plans for the cement plant, Wilson isn't a skeptic.
"I think if he wants to do it, he'll probably do it. There are probably places where our missions and interests overlap," Wilson says. "But it's too early to say."
Bob Cassilly is 50 years old. He's been doing what he's been doing for a long time. But when that generic, first-time stranger question is asked him, for once he is at a loss for words. What do you do? How does Bob, the sculptor/artist/businessman/boss/landlord/real-estate mogul/museum director/ wheeler-dealer, answer that basic American question? It's a question that isn't looking for the last book you read, or what you enjoy, or what you believe; it's asking what you call what it is you do. How does Bob respond?
"I stutter. I get panic in my heart. I start looking out the window," Cassilly says, looking away. "I can't stand to define myself."
Even though he's been sculpting all his adult life and is known for his sculpted animals, from the hippo fountain in New York City's Central Park to the tallest statue in Texas, his giraffe in Dallas, you won't catch him calling himself an artist.
"Especially since it's something of an embarrassment to call yourself an artist," says Cassilly. "People think they're a bunch of assholes, elitists. I disassociate myself with that aspect of 'artist.'"
When it comes to pursuing, or doing, whatever it is he does, Cassilly does not want to depend on anyone else. He claims consumers of the art world who are actually participating in 'higher culture' account for about less than 1 percent of the population.
"So when you think of that, I think if the art world is down to 1 percent, they're almost, in evolutionary terms, like an orangutang, they're at a dead end," says Cassilly. "When you turn to self-mutilation and stuff, you know they're at a dead end. So I figured all bets are off. I became my own patron and basically chose to ignore the art world."
The charge that doing public art or receiving commissions for casting large animals is somehow not staying true to your art baffles Cassilly, because so much of today's art scene is supported by government funds. "How can you be avant-garde when the government supports you? It's like subsidizing the Eskimos and they all turn into alcoholics. You've got third-generation welfare artists," says Cassilly.
When Bob and Gail Cassilly started the City Museum, the intent was to have a for-profit corporation run it. When that didn't pan out, they opted to go nonprofit and seek funds from the Danforth Foundation and others. The Danforths kicked in $250,000. Without that assistance from the foundations, it's unlikely the City Museum would be where it is today.
As for the City Museum, his relationship to it has been affected by its success and his current separation from his wife, who is the executive director of the museum. On the museum's Web site, Bob's official title is "creative director," but he is listed as the "Idea Man." Gail is listed under "Idea Orchestrations."
"I've got to build somewhere, and I'm at an impasse at City Museum, so I'm going to build here," Cassilly says about the cement-plant project. "I have this compulsive building problem. I have to do it somewhere, and I see this as an area of unlimited opportunity."
Griping about not fitting in at the now-successful City Museum or talking about how much better it is to start something up than keep it running may sound like he has "Steve Jobs syndrome" or a case of "sour grapes," Cassilly admits, but then he adds that it may be "partially true, maybe completely true."
Cassilly is also building on the roof of the building that houses the City Museum. His bus still hangs off the 10-story roof, and he's purchased the hull of the interior dome of the McDonnell Planetarium. He plans to cut a hole in the roof for it, plant the dome on top of it and make an auditorium out of it.
As part of their separation, Gail and Bob have split ownership of the building that houses the City Museum. As creative director, he's paid $1 a year. Dave Jump, principal owner of American Milling Co., bought Gail's 50 percent of the building in April. Jump, a multimillionaire from the barge industry, is also backing Bob's purchase and development of the cement plant on Riverview Drive. Jump also owns several buildings along Washington Avenue.
Cassilly traces his real-estate activity to 25 years ago, when he bought his first house in Lafayette Square for $2,000, rehabbing it and selling it at a profit. From there on, it was just a matter of scale.
As for those in the art world who carp at him about "selling out," he dismisses that view. "There's nothing worse for an artist to accept than another artist's success, to the degree that one is a success is the degree that someone else is a failure, because everything is on a sliding scale."
As for someone else's opinion of his work, he sees no point in wondering.
"How would I know if I'm crass or tasteless?" Cassilly asks rhetorically. "It's other people who sit back with some perspective who can look at me. I just do what I'm compelled to do."
For at least one fellow sculptor, Cassilly's variance from the norm is a plus. Tim Curtis taught sculpture at Washington University before moving to the University of Miami, where he is head of sculpture and an associate professor of art. He's a fan of Cassilly the man, the sculptor and "the mover and shaker."
"I find myself talking to students about Bob all the time. Here's a guy who figured out a way to make it on his own. He's an entrepreneur," says Curtis. "As far as I know, he's a self-made man. He has total confidence. Most people have a little voice inside themselves that questions themselves and says, 'Hey, gee, maybe I'm not good enough, maybe I'm not strong enough.' Bob seems to not have that voice. He goes for what he wants and 90 percent of the time achieves it. I'm amazed by that."
Curtis says he sometimes thinks of Cassilly as "the American equivalent to Gaudi," referring to Antonio Gaudi, the Spaniard whose abstract sculptures atop the Casa Mila Apartments and the unfinished spires of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona drew criticism at first but later praise. Cassilly has similar vision and willpower to make things happen, Curtis believes. "It's a compliment when I say a Gaudi. Here's a guy who decided he was going to build those things that nobody thought they needed, and 100 years later they continue to admire it.
"This is not a naïve artist," Curtis says. "He knows his art history, he knows his place in contemporary society. This is a guy who is pretty savvy all the way around."
One longtime Washington Avenue acquaintance of Cassilly credits his work ethic, his real-estate acumen and his willingness to go where others fear to tread.
"He's not afraid to put himself on the line. He wants to do something on the north riverfront? Go for it. Because you know what? Nobody else has the balls to do it. He's not afraid to do things that other people would have feasibility studies done on first and then go to the investment committee. He just does it, and people later on go, 'Wow.'
"What is so impressive is his energy level. He's incredibly productive and hard working. Because he's been shrewd, he now has the means to do things. He's in front of things. He got a hold of the International Shoe Building, a million square feet, when it was give-away stuff."
When it comes to properties, Cassilly is no novice. For the two buildings that make up the International Building Co. on 15th Street between Washington Avenue and Delmar Boulevard, Gail and Bob Cassilly paid $525,000 in 1993 -- one set up for the offices and the other for a factory and warehouse for the International Shoe Co. With his band of "cowboys," a group of about 25 craftsmen and jacks-of-all-trades who have worked for him for close to 20 years, the two buildings were renovated for offices or studios, one space at a time. Many millions of dollars later, the City Museum occupies three floors and 115,000 square feet of the 10-story warehouse building.
Cassilly doesn't appear at ease with his apparent financial success, complaining that he's given in by getting a cell phone, but he's not allergic to having and using money for what he wants. When he showed up in the mayor's office in City Hall last year offering a $250,000 check in earnest money so he could save the Arena, he admitted that the money had come from some of the "unconscionable profits" he had made selling some of his properties. Despite Cassilly's offer to save the structure of the Arena by transforming it into open-air skating rink -- among other things -- Mayor Clarence Harmon ruled that the offer was too little, too late, and went ahead with the demolition.
On that proposal, he missed the boat, but who knows, the boat may have been the Titanic. A lot of times his ideas are just that, ideas. They wouldn't always work if they were tried. His drive to do the different, the spontaneous, the thing that just popped into his head is more "defiance in the face of mortality" than part of a master blueprint.
"If I tell you something tomorrow," Cassilly admits, "it might be something completely different."
It's like when he's at the cement plant, on a bulldozer:
"I drive on the bulldozer and push stuff. You get free association going. Things come up that are random chance -- you take advantage of that."
Free association, random chance, a bulldozer and Bob Cassilly.
"That's a very dangerous combination -- and potent."
But can a multimillion-dollar project built on random chance, free association and the remains of an abandoned cement plant actually work?
"Oh yeah," Cassilly blurts out. "I don't see how it cannot work."