Bob Cassilly was not a card-carrying preservationist, but over the course of his career he seemed to have repurposed more architectural salvage than anyone else in the world. As a sculptor, builder and developer, he traversed the fine line between sculpture and architecture, creating unique adaptive re-use projects that grace cities across the United States.
In 1993, he and his then-wife bought The International Shoe Building: a 10-story 775,000 square foot abandoned building on the edge of downtown St. Louis. Given the building’s location in an area plagued by disinvestment and the woes of decade after decade of population loss, more than a few people told him he was crazy. Yet he believed with steadfast optimism that, “for 69 cents a square foot, you can’t go wrong.”
Over the next few years, Cassilly would turn the building into City Museum, an idiosyncratic playground built primarily of architectural and industrial salvage. Where comparable pleasure gardens feature plastic and padding, City Museum is a surreal mix of jagged stone and rusted rebar; the kind of place that makes children ecstatic and risk-averse lawyers anxious.
His projects did, in fact, foster their fair share of lawsuits. Throughout his career, Cassilly was cited for code violations, illegal dumping and operating without a permit. But to those who helped bring his grand visions to fruition, and those who have benefited from experiencing them, Cassilly was a genius. His best work took existing assets and turned them into dreamlike and unmistakable places where, he said, “people can come and do things they’re not supposed to.” It was this underpinning of pushing traditional limits that fueled his creations and the community’s corresponding love for them.
To some dyed-in-wool preservationists, City Museum’s industrial cages surrounding the exterior of the building – which include an airplane fuselage, a crane, and a cantilevered school bus resting atop the 10 story building – would be inconsistent with preservation ethic and untrue to the time period of the building. But Cassilly ignored the traditional scrape vs. anti-scrape arguments, which he would have found too backward-looking to have been of relevance. He was a forward thinker, a visionary, constantly changing and further developing his futuristic visions in the context of the present.
Cassilly had the special ability to work within the box without being restricted by it. It was this habit of molding pre-existing elements that separated him from other developers (and artists), who, for reasons of simplicity or ego, trend towards the new. In a world where the most ambitious architecture has gone to China, Cassilly built the historic places of the future, a benchmark architects once aimed for but that now seems long discarded. Even more so, he did so in the historic places of the past.
While not a traditional historic preservationist, Cassilly can be presented as one of America’s most important ones. City Museum’s playgrounds are built of old fair trailers and ferris wheels, where the pieces of Americana become the primary object of preservation rather than the building itself. Whether it was the rejuvenation of a shoe factory into an iconic 21st century destination like no other, or the adaptation of a decidedly non-historic abandoned cement factory into a yet-to-be-completed family playground, Cassilly built the places that will define St. Louis for its foreseeable future.
It was at his Cementland, just north of St. Louis, where he died last week in a tragic bulldozer accident, doing what he loved: steadfastly developing unique and lovable new spaces out of something otherwise abandoned. It wasn’t the first time he had flipped a bulldozer. If omnipresent conventional architecture is seen as safe, Cassilly’s was as unsafe as its creator.
“He didn’t wear seat belts. He didn’t wear helmets,” said his wife. He felt that kids, perhaps humans, lived too sheltered a life: “He didn’t care if somebody fell. He cared if they didn’t try.”
Bob Cassilly’s spirit will be sorely missed.