A Purveyor of Outsize Thrills at His Museum of Misfit Toys

Posted by Stephen Miller on 09/30/2011

His City Museum, in an old shoe warehouse, featured a walk-through whale, jet-plane fuselages and what was billed as the world's largest No. 2 pencil. On the roof was a hulking praying mantis he created and a 1940s Ferris wheel. A 10-story slide, originally for sorting shoes, became a favorite ride for kids.

But Mr. Cassilly's enthusiasm for creating outsize amusements may have led to his unfortunate undoing. He was found dead at age 61 on Monday, after apparently rolling his bulldozer that he was using to move earth at his latest project, a disused cement plant that he was turning into an adventure park and sculpture garden to be called Cementland.

It wasn't the first time he had flipped over in a bulldozer, friends said. Trained as a sculptor, Mr. Cassilly created giant model squids and hippos for parks and zoos in St. Louis and around the country. He also had a profitable sideline as a developer, refurbishing St. Louis's decaying Victorian-era architecture.

He was already something of a civic icon when, in 1993, he bought an abandoned 750,000-square-foot industrial complex in the ramshackle city center, and said he was opening a museum.

Mr. Cassilly furnished his museum with giant fish tanks, a maze of tunnels and industrial castoffs like the "puking pig," a hulking fire pump that splashed visitors. Unlike conventional museums, children were encouraged to climb on everything.

"The illusion of danger is essential for any kind of adventure," he once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The first danger the nonprofit museum faced was bankruptcy. In a move nearly unprecedented in the world of museums, Mr. Cassilly in 2002 successfully transformed it into a for-profit enterprise.

Dangers to patrons proved more than illusory as well. The museum faced at least two dozen personal-injury lawsuits for mishaps including severed fingers and a fractured skull. But Mr. Cassilly was unmoved. He posted at the entrance the names of the attorneys who brought lawsuits, and he complained to The Wall Street Journal last year, "They are taking the fun out of life."

At age 14, the St. Louis native apprenticed himself to a sculpture professor at local Fontbonne College, a previously all-female school from which, in 1972, he became the first male graduate. That spring, he married and traveled to Rome. As he told it, it was Mr. Cassilly on that trip who protected Michaelangelo's statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the Vatican, the Pietà, when he pulled a hammer-wielding Hungarian vandal off the sculpture by grabbing his hair.

Many were skeptical when Mr. Cassilly announced he would create a museum in downtown St. Louis, which had become a crime-ridden ghetto. But St. Louis mayor Francis Slay credited the City Museum with helping lead a renaissance in the area.

"He created excitement where nobody wanted to be," said Mr. Slay.

Once the City Museum began turning a profit, Mr. Cassilly lately turned his focus to Cementland. The project's deadline seemed to extend indefinitely as he dreamed up new features like a water ride and a 150-foot Mayan temple."It will be a place where we can do things that are normally illegal," like throwing rocks off a tall chimney, he told the Post-Dispatch.

He added that he had a simple philosophy: "I like to see us as the loyal opposition to the rest of society."