One Part Cement, Two Parts Whimsy, One Odd Park

Posted by Matthew Summers-Sparks on 08/25/2007

ST. LOUIS — In an industrial area here known for truckyards, not art, a sculptor and entrepreneur named Bob Cassilly stands on a 100-foot-tall hill, created from some of the 182,000 truckloads of dirt that have been unloaded and applied to the skeleton of a former cement factory.

Construction companies have dumped dirt here since before he bought the property on which he is standing. But Mr. Cassilly, who has made use of others’ castoffs since the ’70s, is happy to continue the dumping arrangement. It means free sculpture material; just as important, the companies pay him to unload. Without that, he said, “this is basically an unaffordable project.”

The project, which he calls Cementland, resists easy categorization. Imagine a park peppered with Mr. Cassilly’s lively animal sculptures, but also with obsolete cement-making machinery grinding away, industrial silos and other remnants of the 54-acre former factory. Then add navigable waterways, waterfalls and beaches atop dirt hills.

After seven years of work and with at least two more to go, it sounds like a quixotic vision, but Mr. Cassilly, 57, has been down this road before: he is the chief creative force behind the energetic St. Louis City Museum, which in its early years was nearly shuttered during internal strife, but which is thriving today.

“In St. Louis, no one has the confidence in their creativity and intelligence” to make projects like the museum or Cementland work, said Tim Tucker, a developer who worked with Mr. Cassilly in the 1990s. “Lots of people conceive things, but very few can implement them as well as Bob.”

Before Cementland can open, Mr. Cassilly and his crew have significant work to do. There are plans for a staircase spiraling in and around a 250-foot-tall chimney, and a 150-foot-tall Mayan-style pyramid topped by a “skywalk” made from a tower crane.

“You’d walk on the walkway and it’d be slightly uphill, so it’s like you’re walking up into the sky,” Mr. Cassilly said. Pointing south, he rhapsodized about how downtown St. Louis would look from Cementland: “In the afternoon, when the sun shines on the city, you get this nice reflection. You don’t see all the trash and stuff. It’s the best view of the city.”

It’s also a shimmering image of a city in need of shining visions. Last October, in a study that critics called simplistic, Morgan Quitno Press, a private research firm, called St. Louis, which has about 350,000 residents, “America’s most dangerous city.” An F.B.I. report showed that violent crimes rose 14 percent in the last five years.

Yet Mr. Cassilly remains optimistic about his hometown, and he has come to specialize in reinvigorating some of its overlooked jewels. He started in the mid-1970s with a home in Lafayette Square, a neighborhood that at the time was a collection of mostly run-down Victorians. Some people thought they should be torn down, said Barbara Geisman, a former resident of the neighborhood and now St. Louis’s executive director for development, but “Bob was one of the people who believed in the neighborhood and helped turn it around.”

After that, his career went off in a few directions, all of them somehow related to the master’s degree in art that he earned from Fontbonne University in St. Louis. In 1983 he and his second wife, Gail Cassilly, also a sculptor, founded an architectural carving and casting company. They specialized in playful jumbo-sized sculptures for public spaces, like hippos for a playground in Riverside Park in Manhattan and the denizens of Turtle Park in St. Louis. The works, made of concrete or fiberglass and largely created by Mr. Cassilly, capture energetic poses: a giraffe reaching for a high leaf, a turtle stretching its mouth wide. Although a few critics have weighed in, the public — particularly children, including the ones who climb the statues at Turtle Park — loves them.

In addition, Mr. Cassilly restored the facades of decaying buildings in downtown St. Louis and refurbished and resold properties. “It was something I did, kind of like an actor waiting tables, until I was able to work on my art full time,” he said. His day job, so to speak, led to ownership of the properties that would become his major projects.

Mr. Tucker, the developer, was not encouraging when Mr. Cassilly told him of plans to buy a 750,000-square-foot complex for 69 cents a square foot. “If you’d given anyone half a million dollars in 1993, the last place to spend it was in St. Louis,” Mr. Tucker said.

Nevertheless, the Cassillys bought the complex, including the International Shoe Building, offices and a 10-story warehouse with a severe, boxy exterior that Mr. Cassilly described as “something Joseph Stalin would have designed.” He and a crew set about renovation, punching holes in walls and floors and transforming the site into the St. Louis City Museum.

Nothing like a traditional museum, it is a hyperactive amalgamation of castoff materials and Mr. Cassilly’s oversize sculptures. Visitors can climb a staircase supported by the back of a brontosaurus or plumb caves in the building’s core and basement. Outside, MonstroCity, a five-story climbing structure, was assembled from a decommissioned airplane, a fire engine and other salvaged items connected by walkways and wire tunnels. A school bus noses over the edge of the roof. “Think Mad Max meets Watts Towers meets Willy Wonka,” said Paul Ha, director of the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis. “There’s wonder and sometimes a sense of danger to the place.”

In the years before the St. Louis City Museum opened, in 1997, just one downtown building had been renovated; in the years since, the number has topped 60. But while the museum has been widely praised — the Project for Public Spaces listed it among the “Great Public Spaces in the World” in 2005 — its first years were tumultuous.

By 2002, it was facing a financial crisis and Mr. Cassilly was complaining publicly about the museum’s operations. That contributed to the board’s firing of the executive director, who happened to be Gail Cassilly. (The couple divorced in 2002, and Mr. Cassilly has remarried.) Mr. Cassilly threatened to take over, and the board went to court to block him. With creditors pushing for foreclosure, Mr. Cassilly persuaded David Jump, a local businessman, to step in. (The museum has since stabilized: it had about 600,000 visitors last year, Mr. Cassilly said.)

Amid the turmoil, the idea for Cementland was starting to form. In 2000, Mr. Cassilly bicycled past the site, the former Lafarge Cement Factory in northern St. Louis, where he spotted trucks rolling up and dumping dirt.

“I originally knew it was going to be a sculpture park, kind of an earth sculpture, but I didn’t know how, exactly, I was going to do it or what the form was,” he said. “I like to leave myself as open as possible.”

With bulldozer operators, workers to collect the dumping fees and help from welders, sculptors, stonemasons and others who primarily work at the city museum, he has created a rough oval of dirt piles to connect the silos, blast chimney and mixing facilities. While the process has been slow, and Mr. Cassilly received a ticket for dumping with an expired permit in 2000, nature’s constancy will eventually be contrasted with man-made decay, as grass covers the dirt, Mr. Cassilly’s collection of obsolete machines grind and whir to no end and the core of the factory is flooded, allowing visitors to ride boats in and out of the buildings.

“These are simple, elemental forms,” Mr. Cassilly said. “They’re raw and they’re the exact opposite of everything being built today that you get from Ikea and other places. The factory is all heavy industrial stuff. It’s got all this potential. It has energy.”

The goal, he said, is similar to that of the City Museum: to create an unmistakable place “where people can come and do things they’re not supposed to.”