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Bob Cassilly Remembered: Part Sculptor, Part Kid

<p>Matt Marek, 9, climbs to the top of a structure on the roof of the 600,000-square-foot City Museum, a former shoe factory turned avant-garde museum in St. Louis, Mon. Bob Cassilly, the museum's founder, died in late September.</p>
Jeff Roberson
/
AP

Matt Marek, 9, climbs to the top of a structure on the roof of the 600,000-square-foot City Museum, a former shoe factory turned avant-garde museum in St. Louis, Mon. Bob Cassilly, the museum's founder, died in late September.

It's hard to miss City Museum when you're in downtown St. Louis. It's the only building with a Ferris wheel on the roof.

<p>Sculptor Bob Cassilly died last month in an accident while working on his latest work. </p>
/ Courtesy of the Cassilly family
/
Courtesy of the Cassilly family

Sculptor Bob Cassilly died last month in an accident while working on his latest work.

There's a large green praying mantis, too. And a bus that's tipped just over the building's edge.

You can actually get on the bus.

"If you can't climb on it and you can't slide on it, what good is it?" asks J. Watson Scott, summing up the approach of the man responsible for the spectacle. Scott knew and worked with Bob Cassilly for decades, and says the artist never lost his inner kid. Today, with many in St. Louis, he's mourning Cassilly, who died last month in an accident while working on his latest creation.

Cassilly's City Museum, which opened in 1997, is a fantastical place that features caves, a jungle gym and lots of slides. As the Ferris wheel squeaks in the background, Scott says the artist loved to reuse discarded items to create unique spaces that children and adults could climb over, under and through.

"I knew him for 40 years, and I was always in awe of the creativity that flowed from that mind," Scott says.

Cassilly's work can be seen all over the U.S. He made the cement hippos in New York City's Riverside Park, the giant giraffe outside the Dallas Zoo and aquatic creatures at Sea World. But he liked to work on a much bigger scale.

His latest vision was a place he called Cementland — 54 acres on the site of an old cement plant along the Mississippi River. Cassilly's longtime friend Bruce Gerrie says the artist was sculpting with a bulldozer on what had once been level land.

"Now it's hills and giant pyramids and castles and all kinds of elevations on a flat canvas that it took equipment to arrange," Gerrie says.

<p>The MonstroCity is a giant playground for kids and adults, a kind of jungle gym built of airplanes and fire engines and giant Slinkys. </p>
/ City Museum
/
City Museum

The MonstroCity is a giant playground for kids and adults, a kind of jungle gym built of airplanes and fire engines and giant Slinkys.

On the morning of Sept. 27, the 61-year-old Cassilly was found dead in the cab of his bulldozer, which had rolled down a large hill.

Cassilly's friends say his fearlessness was a big part of his success. With City Museum, he turned an old shoe factory in a run-down part of the city into a major tourist attraction.

"The city has really lost a major asset and a major force behind our revitalization," says Barb Geisman, St. Louis' former economic development director and a friend of Cassilly's since the 1970s. "It's just a shame that his unparalleled burst of creativity was cut short like that."

Now his friends say they hope they can carry out Cassilly's vision, and eventually open Cementland, the place that has become his final project.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Altman
Altman came to St. Louis Public Radio from Dallas where she hosted All Things Considered and reported north Texas news at KERA. Altman also spent several years in Illinois: first in Chicago where she interned at WBEZ; then as the Morning Edition host at WSIU in Carbondale; and finally in Springfield, where she earned her graduate degree and covered the legislature for Illinois Public Radio.