The City Museum in St. Louis is both stranger and more impressive than its name might suggest, a retrofitted warehouse complex overflowing with interactive exhibits, novelty rooms, even a ten-story slide. Converted planes and recycled bus are just a few of its creatively reused components, all tied together with winding stairs and climbing nets. Somewhere between a giant carnival fun house and adventure playground, it is a truly epic place, but its creator wanted to go bigger, so he set his sights on a huge old industrial plot outside of town where he began to build out his vision of a place called Cementland.
Bob Cassilly had always liked to build things. He trained as a builder and sculptor at an early age in Missouri, then went on to restore houses and sculpt professionally. Then, in the early 1990s, he and his second wife, Gail Soliwoda, took on their biggest project by far. They purchased a massive disused office and warehouse complex in St. Louis for less than a dollar per square foot, and slowly rebuilt it into the City Museum, a wonderland that would come to attract hundreds of thousands of annual visitors and spark new development.
Later, where others saw disused industrial buildings and stacks of trash on an old lot along the Mississippi river north of downtown, Cassilly saw a world of possibilities. The site had long been an unofficial dumping ground, a place where construction crews would drop off excess sand, dirt and rock from various projects. Once he purchased the site in the early 2000s, Cassilly gladly continued the practice, welcoming dumps of raw materials that he could rework as desired as well as the cash paid to him by dumpers eager to be rid of the waste.
This new Cementland was to be many things — a tribute to the area’s cement-producing history, a space for huge public works of art, and (like its precursor, the City Museum) in interactive place of enjoyment. The factory would double as a castle, with moats carved by Cassilly himself, who enjoyed pushing around dirt with heavy machinery. He imagined letting kids get their kicks throwing rocks from the 200-plus-foot-tall smokestack on the property, then traveling down to a lake below on a winding water ride. There was to be no unifying theme or aesthetic, just an endless series of wonderful interactive constructions.
Tragically, Bob Cassilly would not live to see his grand vision to completion. In September of 2011, he was found deceased on the industry property in an overturned bulldozer. “The city has lost some of its wonder,” said the mayor of St. Louis of Cassilly’s passing.
Today, rusted machinery and medieval-looking turrets dot the property, bits and pieces of a grand plan and hints at what else was envisioned. In the years since, there have been attempts to continue the project, but also a series of incidents, including a sweeping fire in the factory complex on the site. It remains unclear whether it will ever be completed, but then again, such was the nature of Cassilly’s work on the City Museum, too — forever changing, a work in progress.