Bye-Bye, Bob: St. Louis native Bob Cassilly's whimsical genius knew no bounds.

Bye-Bye, Bob: St. Louis native Bob Cassilly's whimsical genius knew no bounds.
Adrienne Spindler

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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."

Dilip Vishwanat
Cassilly at work on Turtle Park.
Courtesy of The Cassilly Family
Cassilly at work on Turtle Park.

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."

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