A Renovator Offers One Possible Remedy for St. Louis Blues

Posted by Robert L. Rose on 06/17/1997

ST. LOUIS -- There has been no public debate here about how to finance the new City Museum, because the public isn't financing it. Bob Cassilly is.

That's a good thing. The public might balk at paying for a museum that is located where Mr. Cassilly is putting it: downtown.

A trouble spot in many American cities, St. Louis's downtown is worse than most. The city's center has a higher office-vacancy rate (19.5%) than Baltimore and Philadelphia. From 1950 to 1990, with neighborhoods deteriorating and crime spiraling, the city lost 54% of its residents, a higher percentage than Detroit and Cleveland did. Today, the demolition of blighted buildings is a thriving business here.

That said, Mr. Cassilly, a 47-year-old Missouri native, still envisions a 35,000-gallon fish tank, a walk-through whale and an indoor maze -- in what was an abandoned shoe warehouse. He wants it to be an eclectic museum for kids that adults, too, would enjoy. Yet, his dream -- because it comes early in a nascent downtown-renewal movement -- may be a bit visionary.

"A lot of people study things to the nth degree," says Mr. Cassilly's assistant, Timothy Tucker, whose own grandfather was mayor of St. Louis in the 1950s and '60s. "He pays attention to his guts."

Mr. Cassilly feels he got a great deal back in 1993 when he bought the dilapidated warehouse and an adjoining office building -- each 10 stories high -- for $525,000. True, the front doors of the office building were rusted shut, and a nearby attraction -- downtown's Campbell House Museum -- was drawing fewer than 3,000 visitors a year. (At its peak, 50 years ago, it attracted 8,000.) But Mr. Cassilly, a sculptor and building renovator by trade, has made money from his two buildings, as well as from buying and selling properties near downtown. He saw potential there, as entrepreneurs had seen potential years ago in now-thriving urban centers such as Cleveland, Baltimore and Miami's South Beach.

"I don't see it, I really don't see it," says Ernie Nowatski, though he lives in subsidized housing a block from Mr. Cassilly's work in progress.

Not for the Fainthearted

"I would suggest he get a really well-lighted parking lot," adds suburbanite Adrienne Fairbanks, who says some of her crime-fearing neighbors in St. Charles, Mo., wouldn't venture into downtown St. Louis under any circumstances. Mrs. Fairbanks, who consults with companies about setting up drug-testing programs, has three children who might enjoy the museum, but she is a bit leery of it herself.

Mr. Cassilly's retort? "We'll get the people who aren't afraid" to visit us.

In the past four years, his warehouse and office building have attracted more than 50 tenants, generating $1.1 million in annual rental revenue. Nearby, new nightclubs have made pockets of downtown cool again for people in their 20s, and artists have taken up residence in recently renovated lofts.

Mr. Cassilly also makes the most of his surroundings to ensure that what could be a $10 million project stays closer to being a feasible, $2 million enterprise. Instead of employing contractors, he uses his own work crews. His raw materials often come from the rubble that lies around him: The marble steps of a giant dinosaur leading to the museum's second floor come from an old city hospital; the ticket booth and gift shop entrance were once part of the facade of the St. Louis Title Co. building; a castle planned for the ground floor is made up of recycled terra-cotta tiles plucked from a building 14 blocks away.

The work has been going on for about two years and is at full throttle now, with an Oct. 23 opening date looming. The early reviews haven't been bad.

"This is awesome," says 12-year-old David Ruhland, as he emerges from a giant bird's nest during a recent visit to Mr. Cassilly's warehouse.

Reluctant Money

But the city's financial community has been wary. It took Mr. Cassilly months to find a local bank, Mark Twain Bancshares Inc., willing to lend him $1 million for his museum project. He has also had little luck finding investors or donors to bear some of the costs of finishing the 35,000-gallon fish tank, one of the museum's centerpieces.

"We're begging right now," Mr. Tucker says bluntly.

The museum is hardly a guaranteed success. It will charge $5 for admission to a not-so-coherent collection of exhibits: the fish tank, the whale, the maze, plus a cave, a stream and a series of tunnels. Occupying 118,000 square feet in Mr. Cassilly's warehouse, the museum was first envisioned as an aquatic showcase. Then, Mr. Cassilly added architectural exhibits and a display of Russian dinosaur bones. Indeed, the shifting mission partly explains the City Museum's generic name.

And though Mr. Cassilly plans to use a school bus that looks like a dragon to shuttle visitors to his museum, the attraction will have to be awfully appealing to reroute suburbanites back to downtown.

Just off Interstate Highways 44 and 270, in the suburb of Kirkwood, is tough competition: the Magic House children's museum, an attraction that draws 300,000 visitors a year. Tourists, meanwhile, regularly write off downtown St. Louis as a destination, other than to see the famed Gateway Arch and Union Station, a shopping, dining and hotel complex, which isn't far from Mr. Cassilly's museum. Jim Gerst, a park ranger at the Arch, says nighttime visitors often ask: "Where did everybody go?"

Motive Forces

But Mr. Cassilly's love of the city's old architecture -- which dates back to his days as a student at Fontbonne College here -- and his own taste for a challenge sustain his commitment. And he has made a living of creating things from raw forms, from carving big animals out of stone, fiberglass and bronze for zoos and parks around the country. Recently, he made a 67 1/2-foot giraffe for the Dallas Zoo and 15 hippos for New York's Central Park. He has sculpted a 24-foot praying mantis that will loom over the museum entrance.

He has a small but growing group of supporters who believe the key to urban renewal is the arrival of people who embrace such risks.

He is "not so outrageous," says Richard Bradley, a former president of the International Downtown Association, in Washington, who visited downtown St. Louis last fall and wrote a report about its problems. He says people like Mr. Cassilly will make others "think it's fun to spend time" here.

Oddly enough, Mr. Cassilly doesn't see that as his main mission. "Public service is second," he says, while eating shish kebab from one of the few vendors left downtown. "We want to do this for the hell of it."