Luxury Living in a Hyperactive Building

Posted by Matthew Summers-Sparks on 09/30/2004

WHEN Bob Cassilly made a bid to buy the International Shoe Company building in 1993, he half hoped he would be turned down. "It was just so big and intimidating," he said of the 10-story, 670,000-square-foot building. "I made this ridiculously low offer. But it was accepted."

Mr. Cassilly, an artist who speculated in real estate from the early 1970's, paid 69 cents a square foot, a bargain even for the derelict section of downtown St. Louis where the disused 1930 warehouse was located. He had been attracted to it because "I could do anything with it," he said. "It looked like Stalin built it. It's just a huge box. It isn't some historic edifice I have to worry about defacing."

But he was not sure at first what it was he wanted to do. Finally, after more than a year, Mr. Cassilly began drawing up plans for an eccentric museum for the lower floors, which he and his wife at that time, Gail, opened in 1997. The City Museum, a phantasmagoric collection of recycled industrial parts, wildly imaginative children's attractions and cultural effluvia like gargoyles, opera posters and vintage latrine parts, was unlike anything St. Louis had ever seen. In the seven years since, it has expanded considerably and become a hub of activity in the city's rapidly gentrifying downtown.

And this year Mr. Cassilly, whose stated ambition is to create "a whole city in microcosm," has introduced loft apartments to the building.

"Bob's vision of a mini-city was a place where activity happened at all hours," said Matthew Philpott, the museum's general manager and the property manager for the building. "The last component was moving people into the building."

Mr. Cassilly, 54, acknowledged that the skyrocketing value of lofts in the area was also a consideration. He and his business partner, David Jump, are selling one- and two-bedroom apartments for $140 a square foot, 200 times what Mr. Cassilly paid for the space 11 years ago. So far, 9 of 28 planned units have been put on the market, and the first two sold within days of a September open house.

In keeping with the museum's off-center aesthetic, Mr. Cassilly has decorated the building's fifth floor, where the apartments are, with parts reclaimed from other venerable St. Louis buildings. The Art Deco elevator bank, for example, uses two-tone gray marble salvaged from a downtown Commerce Bank branch. Nearby, treads from old department-store escalators are stacked on their sides around a curved wall in the public hall.

The lofts, which range from nearly 1,300 to more than 2,800 square feet, are more sparing in recycled materials. "When you're building residential units, all with the same things in them — kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms — achieving a unified cobbled-together look is very difficult," Mr. Philpott said.

Still, the two-bedroom model apartment, which is priced at $337,960 (the asking prices are $175,280 to $395,360), has green marble kitchen countertops made from the lobby walls of the Syndicate Trust Tower, a 97-year-old downtown building recently gutted. The base of the kitchen island is made of blackboards from a razed school, and the seven-foot front door once hung in the Missouri History Museum.

The recycling, Mr. Cassilly said, is less about saving money than seeking out interesting materials. "I use all these different objects designed by other people with different points of view," he said, with the aim of achieving "a sense of balance by being off-balance."

Mr. Philpott, meanwhile, has served as the methodical foil to Mr. Cassilly's free-wheeling visionary, both in the maintenance of the museum and in the development of the lofts. "As Bob creates staircases and climbers and dragons and things," he said, "I define bathrooms, air-conditioning, things like that, which he didn't think were terribly important at the time."

Both of them took seriously the building's huge footprint, 60,000 square feet unrelieved by even a small light well. "The windows are all on the perimeter, so you have to take up the interior space," Mr. Cassilly said. There is also a grid of support columns spaced 20 feet apart throughout the building, which required unusual twists and turns in the long apartments as they snake in from the building's edge toward its core.

Another practical concern was the location of the apartments in the building. Putting them on the fifth floor, Mr. Philpott said, should give owners a sense of separation from the hubbub of the museum. "People are high up enough to feel like they are above the action," he said./p>

Just outside the building, though, a giant sculptural jungle gym designed by Mr. Cassilly — he named it MonstroCity, "to beat my critics to the punch" — climbs to the level of the apartments. The two-bedroom model loft looks out directly on the highest point of the structure, a swooping tube of spiraling metal 70 feet above the ground, through which shouting children and adults are constantly moving during museum hours, and also on a decomissioned Sabreliner jet.

The real action is downstairs, where an elaborate series of concrete caves are built into the shoe warehouse's central conveyor shaft (the caves are a popular late-night hangout for young adults) and where a 12,500-square-foot aquarium area houses tanks, including one of 50,000 gallons for sharks. There are two cafes and a theater that shows cult films, as well as a bar outside.

Mr. Cassilly is planning to add more, including a refurbished entry area for the building, an extension to MonstroCity that connects it to the roof and, on the roof, a new project: a water park and spa, to be built partly beneath the dome that lined the planetarium at the old St. Louis Science Center.

"It'll have wet and dry slides, some that make it look like you're falling off the building," Mr. Cassilly promised.

And if the lofts continue to sell, he said he planned to develop Floors 6 through 9, for a total of 140 apartments.

A building with so much going on in and around it may be too much for some prospective buyers, particularly suburbanites who are considering a move downtown. "The project is sort of risky," Mr. Cassilly acknowledged. But in his view that is better than the alternative, developing the building in "a half-hearted way." He added, "That would just be a total disaster, because it would be boring."

And although Mr. Cassilly knows that there are people who would rather not live amid recycled machine parts next to a gigantic jungle gym, he has some trouble relating. Last year, after living in downtown St. Louis most of his life, he moved to Clayton, a suburb, so his children could attend the town's well-regarded schools.

But he did not last long. "I couldn't stand it out there," he said. "When my lease was up in June, I didn't know where to go. But I had this space on the fourth floor." So at the beginning of July he moved his and his children's belongings into former office space above the City Museum.

The spacious, unconventional setup suits him, he said, and he is not tempted to move into one of the fifth-floor apartments. "I spend all my money on my projects," he explained. (Besides developing the building, he is working on a project provisionally called Cementland, in a former cement factory.) "I can't afford the lofts upstairs."