By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
When Bob Cassilly's body was found on the morning of Monday, September 27, inside the cab of a bulldozer at Cementland, his larger-than-life industrial playground/creative experiment, almost everyone who knew him — and also many who didn't — remarked that he had died exactly the way he had lived. But his old friend Mary Sprague, a local artist who was with Cassilly when he began work on the City Museum, his other great creation, had a slightly different reaction.
"My first smartass thought was: He lived by the toy and died by the toy."
For Cassilly, who died at age 61, bulldozers were tools, and tools were toys. "He always made it fun," says Kurt Knickmeyer, who was a member of Cassilly's team of workers — a.k.a. the "Cassilly Crew" — for more than 30 years. "It was like a game. We were like kids in a sand pile with toys."
"He was out there working every day," recalls Bill Streeter, a video artist and friend of Cassilly. "It was his favorite thing to do."
For all his playfulness, Cassilly was a man with a mission. "His whole purpose in life was to make things beautiful," says Sharon von Senden, a mosaic artist who works in the City Museum. "And he could call on people to help him make things beautiful."
"That a single mind has the whimsy to conceive something like that, and the muscle to make it happen — that's singular," marvels Matt Strauss, founder of the local gallery White Flag Projects.
"He really put St. Louis on the map as far as being creative goes," says Barbara Geisman, the City of St. Louis' former executive director of development whose friendship with Cassilly stretches back to the 1970s when they were among the first urban pioneers to settle in Lafayette Square. "The City Museum got people to come downtown who wouldn't ordinarily be near here. It made them realize there's more to downtown than a baseball stadium."
From the very beginning, Cassilly was a sculptor and builder. As a boy growing up in Webster Groves, he built a proto-City Museum on the banks of the creek behind his house, complete with a tunnel, a tree house and a network of vines for swinging. His father, Bob Sr., taught him how to use a jigsaw and bought him his first Boy Scout knife, which he soon realized was more useful for making woodcarvings than for cutting rope. When he was fourteen and a student at St. John Vianney High School in Kirkwood, his mother, Judy, arranged for him to apprentice to Rudy Torrini, a sculptor who was also a professor at Fontbonne College (since renamed Fontbonne University).
"He was at my right elbow," Torrini remembers. "He would watch what I did and then do it himself. Learning by osmosis — that's the best way to learn. He was my best student. He became a part of me."
Cassilly studied alongside Torrini through college; he became the first male student to graduate from Fontbonne. After graduation, he and his first wife, CeCe Davidson, moved to Lafayette Square, which was slowly being rediscovered and rehabbed after decades of neglect. They bought their first house for $2,000. "He moved to Lafayette Square because it was cheap," explains J. Watson Scott, who took up residence in the historic enclave around the same time, "and because he could see its potential."
"Bob's favorite line was, 'Wouldn't it be cool if...,'" recalls long-time real estate agent Carolyn McAvoy, another Lafayette Square pioneer. "There was this ugly, abandoned storefront. Everyone complained about it. Bob said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if it disappeared?' So he rounded up some people, and the next day it was gone. The rest of us grew up and stopped doing things like that, but Bob kept on. He epitomized, not rebelliousness because he was never mad at anyone, but not asking permission to do what in his heart he felt was the righteous thing."
That included using wood left over from his home renovations to construct dinosaur sculptures in empty lots. "Bob hated when people wasted things," says Geisman's partner, public-relations A-lister Richard Callow. "He was an avid recycler. He hated wasting anything unique. Or ten thousand of something. He said that was a collection."
The Cassillys opened the Park Place Restaurant at the corner of 18th Street and Park Avenue, which Scott says was the neighborhood's first destination spot. They retired to Hawaii on the proceeds, but Cassilly grew bored with a life of leisure. He returned to St. Louis and began to amass a small fortune by flipping real estate properties.
"Everything he touched turned to gold," says Knickmeyer. "He bought Polar Wave Ice and Fuel and sold off the equipment. Then the Missouri Botanical Garden wanted to expand — onto the property that Bob had bought. He sold big. That was Bob's luck."
Cassilly's luck, Knickmeyer continues, kept such ill-conceived experiments as building a makeshift kiln in the basement or igniting a bonfire in an empty lot on a windy March afternoon from exploding into full-fledged disasters. "My luck," Knickmeyer says wryly, "the house would've burned down."
i had a friend who lived like a block from cementland and always wondered what could be done with it. its crazy what he did with the place def hope it gets to be completed.
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I personally think he had more than Steve Jobs did. Steve ran the show and went to others for the ideas. Bob WAS the idea.
My kids and every St. Louis visitor we have LOVE the City Museum--from kid to adult. RIP Bob. Your vision, energy and strength were amazing.
I love this guy!! What a disappointment to society and to St. Louis that he's gone. I was so sad when I first heard about the story.
In a city (and country) that sorely needs visionaries, Bob's loss is a profound one. While he might not have had Steve Job's impact, that does not diminish his creativity or vision. Rest well.
bob will be missed greatly..he is the equivalent to Walt Disney in his vision and creativeness .St Louis has lost a true artisan...
Regarding my comment on Cementland - I thought I said 80,000 truckloads - not 80,000 pounds. 80,000 pounds is only 40 tons.
You sure are a "kick'em while there down" type of guy. I feel sorry for you.My dad was not perfect, by a long shot.I am not perfect by a longer shot. We had some differences over the years. When push came to shove, he loved me unconditionally.Thats all that mattered to me. Relax jimfocus. Relax.
Max, your father was my dad's right arm, his left elbow, good friend, and someone dad can't discuss without feeling sadness and tears to this day. I cannot recall a time when dad ever spoke ill of your father, to the contrary, dad looked upon your dad with awe, and greatness. Your speech at the memorial was one your father would have been proud of, just as he was proud of you and Daisy. Hey, nobody is perfect, but your dad had a knack of getting past the naysayers, doing what he loved, involving you both when he saw fit.It is what made your dad special.Our thoughts are with your family, your mom, sister, and you always have friends here in Webster. Your dad is greatly missed by our family, we won't forget him.
Max (if this is, indeed, Max), I am sorry for your loss, and condolences to you and your family. If you read my posts, my interactions with your father, good and bad, gave me a fairly accurate view of him over the yrs. I'll let those remarks stand. Anyone who knew and dealt with Bob Cassilly always eventually encountered a point where he would not deviate, even when taking a needless risk. His bull headedness was legendary. I wish Bob Cassilly was still here, it's tragic what happened. And please note, I never questioned your father's love for you or his family, ever.
Since you talked straight to me, Max, I'll return the courtesy. I said weeks ago in the RT that things seemed to be spinning out of control with you, and your father, and that I feared even worse things were going to happen.
At the risk of sounding to you that I'm kicking you while you are down, that's not my intent.
Max, it appears you have some issues, court documents state they are alcohol and drug related. Now's the time to go and get help, pull your life together. If you violated a restraining order, that's not cool, no matter who told you to ignore it. If you are threatening people's lives, you will eventually find yourself in huge trouble. People do not suddenly become more functional abusing alcohol and drugs, they become more dysfunctional -- pull yourself together, get help, and clean up. You have gifts, Max. Real talent. Maybe now, this is the time to show them, build on them. Don't throw it all away.