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Aaron Belz

Cassilly's City

Remembering the Gaudí of St. Louis.

St. Louis artist Bob Cassilly died in a bulldozer accident on September 26. He was, according to local news, ascending one of the dangerous inclines of his unfinished creation, Cementland, when the machine rolled backward and landed upright. He was found dead in its cage.

In case you haven't heard of Cassilly, he was the Antoni Gaudí of the American Midwest, creator of City Museum and Turtle Park. While he lived he was not as celebrated as he will be now. He was a gadfly as much as he was a pioneer, insisting on his bizarre vision even when it conflicted with city building codes and public safety concerns—and even though it meant the end of his marriage. Now that he's dead, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay tweets, "The city has lost some of its wonder."

Fifteen years of wonder, that is. In 1996, my wife and I bought a Craftsman-style bungalow on Louisville Avenue in the Dogtown neighborhood of St. Louis—so named, legend has it, because it was where dog-owning Pacific Islanders had camped while they worked on the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. They either kept dogs for safety or stewed them; the legend is open-ended.

Dogtown lies directly south of the 1300-acre Forest Park, where the fair was held. Some of Forest Park's buildings, such as the Art Museum and the Bird Cage, still stand from the otherwise mostly temporary construction of the fair. The remains of a 265-foot Ferris wheel are rumored to have been buried under its fields. Otherwise, little of the fair's promise endures. In a century St. Louis has gone from America's fourth-largest city, a symbol of westward expansion, to its 58th largest, named "most dangerous" by CQ Press in 2006 and 2010—occasionally more dangerous, that is, than Detroit.

My wife and I lived in Dogtown for eight years, adding three children to that little bungalow. With bright stained-glass windows, it was our sweetest home. The year we bought it was the year Bob Cassilly installed one of his first public works of art, just a few blocks away: several massive concrete turtles that came to be known as Turtle Park. Some of our most prized photographs are of our children standing next to, or on, or trying to fit inside the mouths of those giant turtles.

Also in 1996, two of my friends and I started a media firm called Schwa Digital Design. We rented space in the Fashion Square Building in the 1300 block of the then mostly desolate Washington Avenue business district, on the north side of downtown St. Louis. Within the following year, Cassilly purchased and began to renovate a 700,000-square-foot building two blocks west of ours. I remember talking to his property manager, Tim Tucker, about the possibility of Schwa moving over there. We were priced out.

We did take a tour of the renovation, and I spoke to Bob about it. At that point it didn't have a name, just one large concrete whale in its first floor, half finished. I'd heard that he was putting together an eccentric museum and emailed to offer Schwa's services in setting up a computer arcade. He expressed interest, but I never followed through. A few months later I saw a meteorite for sale on eBay (which was also a new phenomenon at that time), and I emailed Cassilly's people to see if they wanted it. They said they would put in a bid.

I had no idea what City Museum would come to mean for St. Louis. In the deep shadow of a century of decline, a little light was glimmering, like the windows of our Dogtown bungalow. In a city that thirty years earlier had seen one incredible thrust upward toward heaven, like a dying heave, the Arch, a strange vision was taking shape. Cassilly's was a vision artfully connected with the past, collecting its detritus along with its treasures, but also excitingly inventive and confident.

And incredibly local; we first tourists of the City Museum had no idea St. Louis had produced so much interesting stuff. Façades, gargoyles, bridge elements, signs, factory leftovers formed into murals and rides, and Team Cassilly's concrete animals and abstract designs contributed to a place the likes of which none of us had never experienced, Gaudíesque in its abstraction but with hints of the Science Center and Bladerunner. Within five years, and despite financial near-collapse, the City Museum went from a mere curiosity to a small, thriving empire.

In 2003, I incorporated another small enterprise, this time a nonprofit poetry reading series. Cassilly let us use a small, dark, circus-like theater on the third floor as our home, so its official name was "Readings @ City Museum." It had a terrible PA system, and as museum traffic increased, the jingling of pinball games and cash registers became harder and harder to tune out.

Before and after many of those readings, I walked past Bob Cassilly, hard at work on something new, though I usually couldn't tell what it was. He would greet me and my visiting poets and affirm his delight that a cultural event was being born there. The series moved to the Contemporary Art Museum for its second season and eventually became known as Observable Readings—as it still is today. Eventually my family and I left St. Louis so that I could take a teaching job in California. Now we're in North Carolina. For us, nothing remains of that former life.

A month ago I returned to the City Museum with my two daughters. There weren't enough hours in our visit to have all the different kinds of fun we were intended to have. Afterward, sweaty and sore, we walked down Washington and witnessed its new life. People, stores, cars—it was not the 1904 World's Fair, but it was something. I didn't know that we stood in time so close to the end of Bob Cassilly's life.

St. Louis is something, something more than the Cardinals and Anheuser-Busch. It took an artist to define it and turn it into a walkable work of art. I hope his vision continues.

Aaron Belz is a writer in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He is the author of two books of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007) and Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).

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