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."
With his second wife, Gail (whom he'd met at Fontbonne, though at the time she was a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa), Cassilly started the architectural casting firm Cassilly & Cassilly. In a way he was following in the footsteps of Bob Sr., who was in the construction business. But Cassilly & Cassilly wasn't interested in plain old slabs of concrete. The Cassillys created façades and cornices and other details sought after by the growing cadre of rehabbers who wanted to restore Lafayette Square and downtown to their former glory. "He was a force in making Lafayette Square what it is today," Geisman declares.
But Cassilly was far better known for his sculpture. With Torrini he had worked in clay, but now his medium was concrete. He populated Forest Park with baboons, a hippopotamus — even iconic Saint Louis Zoo director Marlin Perkins — and the giant snakes and turtles in Turtle Park. He made a surprisingly ethereal monarch butterfly for the Butterfly House in Chesterfield and a 300-foot-tall giraffe for the Dallas Zoo.
He was fiercely protective of his creations. When city parks officials ordered that the sculptures in Turtle Park be coated with a protective epoxy that turned them what Cassilly considered a hideous shade of reddish-brown, someone gave voice to the statues' anguish by spray-painting on them "WE HAVE BEEN SLIMED" and "HELP I CAN'T BREATH [sic]". Though Cassilly neither denied nor confirmed, all clues pointed to him as the most likely perpetrator.
In 1993 Cassilly began work on what would become his most widely recognized achievement: the City Museum, an urban wonderland of caves and five-story slides and an enormous jungle gym. And a circus and a surprisingly sober display of some of St. Louis' discarded architectural treasures and a shoelace factory, this last a homage to the building's earlier incarnation as the International Shoe Company.
"We closed on the building on June 21, 1993," recalls Tim Tucker, who left his position with the Missouri Department of Mental Health to go work for Cassilly. "I told Bob to buy the smallest building on Washington Avenue, because everyone else who had tried to build there had gone broke. He said, 'I bought the International Building.' I said, 'Bob, that's the biggest building on Washington Ave.!' That was when 'city' was a four-letter word. Bob negotiated with Washington University to lower the price from $2.5 million to $525,000. Back then if you gave anyone with any sanity half a million dollars, they would not spend it on Washington Avenue. But Bob said, 'For 69 cents a square foot, you can't go wrong.'"
From the start the City Museum was destined to be both a work of art and a grand improvisation. When Cassilly took over the building, it was 762,000 square feet of open space, punctuated with concrete pillars. It was filthy. A mushroom farm had sprouted on one of the upper floors where a pipe had burst. But he had a vision, which he intended to fulfill with any material he could salvage or scrounge for cheap. He worked nonstop. His mother brought him lunch every day because otherwise he wouldn't stop to eat; she brought cookies for the entire staff, too, which eternally endeared her to them. (Bob Sr. also contributed: He built the bean-bag toss in the Mini City area.)
"What people don't realize," says Callow, "is that the City Museum is really a gigantic art installation."
The first piece Cassilly constructed, the serpentine wall in the parking lot, won a Concrete Council Award. He expected the same sort of perfection from everything in the museum.
"Nothing could be done without his approval," recounts von Senden, who started making mosaics at the City Museum in 1994, after the Cassillys had seen and admired her work at the Venice Café in Benton Park. "He showed us how he wanted it done. He'd come in with a big Sharpie and sweep it over the floor and it was up to us to figure out what the sweeps meant. Sometimes we got it right, and sometimes we didn't. Many times we had to pull out what we worked on all day."
"Bob didn't like to hear the word 'no' or why you couldn't do something," adds Stephanie von Drasek, who manages the gift shop. "There was nothing better than when Bob said, 'I think that's perfect.' But you rarely heard that."
Even after he started work on Cementland, Cassilly continued to tinker with the City Museum, building more slides and installing trees and the world's largest pencil. "As long as there was available space," says Mike DeFilippo, who once served as the City Museum's resident photographer (and for a time as Riverfront Times' staff photographer), "Bob would build something new."
The City Museum gave St. Louisans a place to show off to out-of-town guests. "Everyone who comes here, even the New York Times, thinks it's a special place, the likes of which will not be found anywhere else," says Geisman. "It's a tribute to Bob's willingness to try anything. He didn't sit around worrying. He was going to try and make it all work."
For local artists Cassilly was an inspiration. "I moved back here from Chicago, and I wondered if I'd ever be able to stay here," recalls Peat Wollaeger, a street artist. "But things like the City Museum kept me here. It inspired me, made me think: Why not do something like that here and make St. Louis a better place?"
It wasn't just young artists who felt a special loyalty to Cassilly. So did the Cassilly Crew, many of whom had been with him for 30 or 40 years. "They were his real family," says Tucker.
Says DeFilippo: "So many employees depended on him for their work and their livelihood and even their identity." They stayed with Cassilly even though they could have earned more money working elsewhere, he adds. "If you had a choice between building a rest stop or building something like the City Museum — to see a child playing on your creation — which would you do?"
Cassilly was by no means the easiest person to work for. "You always knew when he was in a good mood," says von Senden. "He'd smile and walk slowly and take everything in. When he was not in a good mood, you'd stay out of his way. You wouldn't have improved his disposition. He could be a tyrant. But," she adds, "he could be a marshmallow at the same time."
"He was the most generous guy," says Scott. "He gave a lot of money to people. If you needed something and were a good guy yourself, he'd give you something. In the 1970s I got wiped out buying houses. Bob saved my life." Years later, when Scott had retired and complained of being bored, Cassilly gave him a part-time job in hospitality at the City Museum.
"He had this crazy energy that drove him," says Knickmeyer.
Cassilly's career was not without controversy. The City Museum faced some two dozen lawsuits between 2005 and 2010, and Cassilly himself did not endear himself to plaintiffs when he mocked them on Facebook, pointing out how their injuries came from their own carelessness. "Bob wanted to put a sign outside admissions that said it would be a lot less expensive without lawyers," says Callow. (And without insurance premiums: The City Museum's personal-injury policy costs $600,000 annually.)
"Bob was concerned kids were too sheltered," DeFilippo explains. "He didn't care if somebody fell. He cared if they didn't try."
Adds Knickmeyer: "He wanted kids to experience things. He wanted kids to know what's real, and pain is part of it."
Those who knew him say Cassilly was affected when children were injured. "Anyone who thought Bob was callous did not understand what he was doing with the museum," says Callow. "He was most upset by the little girl who fell between the cracks of the tram. Bob cried. He had everyone out there with welding torches going through every inch of the place, even the office staff."
While many of the exhibits in the City Museum look as though they might fall apart at any minute, the implied danger was designed as an illusion, in order to add to the spirit of adventure. Cassilly took pains to make everything as secure as possible, often using himself as a guinea pig. He boasted that even though he was more than six feet tall, he had been through every hole and tunnel in the City Museum. ("Once," says Callow, "a female employee pointed out that she was built in a different way and had parts that wouldn't fit. Bob studied her for five years. He saw her as an engineering challenge.")
When he was building the MonstroCity jungle gym, he climbed on it to determine where the handrails should go. He was not above forcing his daughter, Daisy, to climb with him.
Cassilly's commitment to preserving his artistic vision extended to other people's art, as well as his own. Back in 1972, while on honeymoon with his first wife in St. Peter's Basilica, Cassilly encountered what he later described as a hammer-wielding maniac (the would-be vandal turned out to be a Hungarian geologist) attacking Michelangelo's Pietà with a chisel.
"I leaped up and grabbed the guy by the beard," Cassilly told People magazine. "We both fell into the crowd of screaming Italians. It was something of a scene."
Cassilly also made plenty of scenes on his own turf. A few years later, he and his friend Bruce Gerrie (now curator of the City Museum's architectural museum-within-a-museum) set out to save one of the spires of the soon-to-be-demolished St. Henry's Church in the city's Gate District, west of Lafayette Square. The pair spent a great deal of money tuck-pointing the outside of the tower and restoring the masonry so it could stand on its own as a monument to the neighborhood.
"One day I was at a funeral and my phone rings," Tucker remembers. "I look down and it's Bob. And then it's Bruce. And then it's Bob again. After the service I called them back. They said the demolition contractor had come to tear down the tower. They parked Bruce's Jeep at the foot of the tower so the [wrecking] ball couldn't get in. The police came, and Bob called the police on the police. They took Bob and Bruce off to jail."
According to Tucker the incident marked the only time Cassilly was ever arrested.
The tower eventually came down. But that, says Tucker, isn't the point. The point is the lengths to which Cassilly would go in order to protect something he considered important.
St. Henry's was not Cassilly's only failure to get his way. In 1999, when the old St. Louis Arena (known for a time as the Checkerdome) in Dogtown was on the brink of demolition, Cassilly staged an impromptu sit-in at city hall, armed with a $250,000 check in earnest money. It was never entirely clear what his plans for the arena were; most who were there agree he wanted to install offices and retail, but they disagree whether the main attraction would have been a roller coaster, a simulacrum of a tropical beach or the world's largest strip club, which would have brought tourists to St. Louis and employment to the area's stripper talent. Whatever the case, the then mayor Clarence Harmon rejected Cassilly's offer outright.
Many of Cassilly's associates believe that Cementland, which he had been working on for more than a decade, was destined to be his masterpiece. A gigantic land sculpture on 54 acres near the Mississippi River in the Riverview neighborhood, it includes, among many other things, a castle made of cobblestones, gazebos fashioned from old cement hoppers and the rudiments of a lake with a stream that visitors could traverse via canoe. It's beautiful and strange, and yet somehow unmistakably the work of Bob Cassilly. Cassilly planned to live there one day and had started building a house, though he eventually settled a few minutes away.
"If you quote me on this, I'll deny it," warns DeFilippo. "But I think Bob was a reincarnation of the Mound Builders. He had dump trucks bring 80,000 truckloads of earth out there. He wanted to build the highest spot on the Mississippi River. He built pyramids and mountains out there."
The fate of Cementland is uncertain. "I don't know if anyone else will have the vision to complete it," says Streeter.
There was a plan, contends Knickmeyer, which may have been drawn up to appease the bureaucrats who enforced city building codes. But Cassilly never stuck to it. "His mind was very complex," Knickmeyer muses. "Sometimes he'd be doing something, like sculpting a snake or a turtle, and you'd think he was going in a certain direction, and then all of a sudden he'd do something bizarre. It was so odd. Just when you could predict where he was going, he would change."
Cassilly was always improvising. When a tornado tore out some cottonwood trees in front of his house last spring, Cassilly had the trees brought to Cementland, where he stood them straight up in the earth and topped them with a concrete slab.
Even if Cementland never opens, Cassilly's legacy won't soon be forgotten. He told his employees that he wanted the City Museum to continue its operations uninterrupted. Rick Erwin, the museum's manager, says the staff will complete the projects Cassilly was working on: affixing an(other) airplane to an exterior wall and building a seven-story spiral staircase down MonstroCity.
Those closest to Cassilly believe he died happy. After an acrimonious divorce from Gail in 2002, he had become estranged from her and their two children, Daisy and Max; Cassilly's current wife, Giovanna, obtained a legal injunction preventing Max from entering either the City Museum or her and Cassilly's home. But after Max was shot last summer, Knickmeyer says, Cassilly made peace with his children and his former wife.
"It was a relief to Bob," he says. "And it makes things easier for Max and Daisy. After the accident, OSHA asked if he was stressed out. But he was at peace. He was as relaxed as he could be."
"I still think of him the present tense," says DeFilippo. "I know lots of other people will, too. He left so much that's unique, unique to Bob."
Adds Tucker: "His special genius was that he could see things and think larger than anyone else. It was great being around him. He made you see that reality was far bigger than you imagined."
"The last time I saw Bob was when I visited him last spring," says Mary Sprague. "He asked me if I'd been to the caves lately." Dogged by back pain from slow-to-heal nerve damage, she had not. "Bob said, 'We'll go slow.' We went up to the second or third floor. It was beautiful. He had good taste, in a wild and woolly way. There was an organ playing Bach. We sat for half an hour and listened. Bob didn't sit for half an hour for anybody. It was a beautiful moment. Then he kicked me out and told me he had to go back to work."