Bob Cassilly, Playscape Creator Fueled by Whimsy, Dies at 61

Posted by Douglas Martin on 09/29/2011

"The city has lost some of its wonder."

City Museum Bob Cassilly

The epiphany for Bob Cassilly came when he was building an underground city in the dirt beneath the porch of his family home. Eavesdropping on his parents’ adult conversation, he thought, “What a shame not to be 11.”

Mr. Cassilly held onto his sense of childlike wonder, shunning some of the usual trappings of adulthood. He never collected a regular wage, and insisted that his many occupations — sculptor, artist, businessman, landlord, real estate mogul and museum director — did not define him.

His imagination did. He created whimsical animal sculptures around the country, including hippopotamuses for children to play on in Riverside Park and Central Park in Manhattan and a giraffe at the Dallas Zoo that is Texas’s tallest sculpture if you count its outstretched tongue. In his native St. Louis he built a children’s paradise of tree houses, caves, slides and odd treasures he found and called it City Museum. It became a leading tourist attraction.

Perhaps his boldest vision was to create what he called Cementland, another tourist attraction, this one at the site of an abandoned cement factory in St. Louis next to the Mississippi River. He would sometimes go there on weekends alone to bulldoze dirt himself. He loved bulldozers. And that was where a worker found his body on Monday, still behind the controls of the machine, at the foot of a monstrous pile of dirt. The bulldozer had apparently rolled over while Mr. Cassilly was pushing dirt and killed him before landing upright, the St. Louis authorities said. He was last seen on Sept. 24. He was 61.

Mr. Cassilly had bought the site and was methodically turning it into a peculiar playground that illustrated — at least in his own idiosyncratic mind — the emergence of prehistoric life, the industrial revolution and the evanescence of time.

Cementland’s planned attractions, however outlandish, were easier to grasp. Mr. Cassilly knew children of all ages would relish throwing rocks from the plant’s 225-foot-high smokestack, or ride in a boat from the top of a silo along a winding water chute four-fifths of a mile long before dropping into a lake. There would be a castle, mazes of moats, tunnels and perhaps a pyramid. Rusted machinery scattered on the grounds would be set in random motion for no apparent purpose.

“It will be a place where we can do things that are normally illegal,” Mr. Cassilly said in a 2005 interview with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

After his body was found, Francis G. Slay, the mayor of St. Louis, said, “The city has lost some of its wonder.”

Robert James Cassilly Jr. was born on Nov. 9, 1949, in St. Louis to a building contractor and a homemaker. At 7 years old, he recalled, he would lie in bed envisioning building things with no idea of their ultimate purpose. By the time he was 14, he was skipping classes to apprentice with a sculptor. He graduated from Fontbonne College (now Fontbonne University) in St. Louis.

Mr. Cassilly later built and operated a restaurant, for which he made fountains and sculptures. After selling the business, he moved to Hawaii to carve wood on a beach. Perfect days soon bored him, however, so he returned to St. Louis and Fontbonne to earn a master’s degree. There, he met Gail Soliwoda, a fellow sculptor. He married her after divorcing his first wife, the former Cecilia Davidson. He and Ms. Soliwoda also were artistic and business partners until their divorce in 2002.

Mr. Cassilly married a third time and is survived by his wife, the former Melissa Giovanna Zompa. He is also survived by two children from his second marriage, Max and Daisy Cassilly; and two sons from his third, Dylan and Robert III.

In the mid-1970s Mr. Cassilly refurbished a house in a neglected St. Louis neighborhood, then followed up by building six new town houses. The architectural ornaments he designed led him to start a business making them, which led to animal sculptures. He made big ones for the St. Louis Zoo, including a 45-foot-long squid.

In 1983, he bought a 250,000-square-foot building complex housing a shoe factory in downtown St. Louis for 69 cents a square foot. He stuffed it with wonders like a five-story jungle gym partly built from the carcasses of two jet airplanes and a fire truck; a walk-through whale; a rooftop Ferris wheel; a circus; an aquarium; caves; a shoelace factory; what Mr. Cassilly claimed is the world’s largest No. 2 pencil; and a collection of skateboard ramps where children could do everything but use skateboards. It opened as City Museum in 1997.

The Project for Public Spaces, a research and advocacy group, has listed City Museum as one of the “great public spaces in the world.”

Mr. Cassilly began the museum as a nonprofit institution, but tired of formalities like a board of directors. He bought it in 2002 to run it as a business. A first step was charging for parking. He put up a sign, “Greedy Bob’s Parking Lot.” More than 600,000 people visit each year.

Mr. Cassilly, habitually clad in jeans and boots, called himself an anarchist. He often ignored building permits and once, using spray paint, defaced a family of concrete turtles he had made for a park after park workers changed their color when they applied a protective coating.

The do-it-yourself, trying-anything nature of the museum led, not surprisingly, to injuries and, also not surprisingly, to dozens of personal injury suits. Mr. Cassilly’s response was to post telephone numbers of lawyers at the door.

When suits went to trial, he resented his time on the witness stand. “Jurors have no sense of irony,” he said.