The St Louis City Museum: How outsider Art Saved Downtown St. Louis

| July 1, 2014


When Bob Cassilly first started working on City Museum in 1995, it didn’t have a name but he knew he wanted his mission statement to read: “we seek the white whale.” St Louis has never

Photo by Matt Howry - Creative Commons at Flickr

Photo by Matt Howry – Creative Commons at Flickr

seen anything like Bob Cassilly’s work. He creates from his gut, obsessively, constantly, joyfully. Although he was classically trained by Rudolf Torrino to do highly realistic and traditional sculpture commissions, Cassilly simply couldn’t stomach the work. After a few years of creating commissions for zoos and gardens, he was looking for a way to develop his own ideas. Bob Cassilly bought the International Shoe company in an abandoned section of downtown St. Louis almost on a whim. His dream was to build a world with “no rules” where anything could happen and every kind of creative endeavor could have a home. Ten years later this vision has not only been realized, but seems to be a living, thriving, and much-loved part of the city landscape. St. Louis City Museum is a place young people come to be irreverent, active, and above all, creative. Though St. Louisans don’t always understand Cassilly or his creations, they have grown to love his work.


Like many visionary creations, Bob Cassilly’s work defies easy definition. Classical sculpture and installation work do not have the vocabulary even to describe what he makes. After struggling for a year to write about Bob’s work, I came across the visionary environments of the Art Brut artists. It is when placed amongst these passionate, fantastical and imaginative creations that Cassilly’s work feels most at home. Bob is what John Maizels of Raw Vision magazine refers to as a “visionary sophisticate.” These are “professional artists who have indulged their personal vision to create their fantasies.” Similar visionary sophisticates would be Nikki de St. Phalle and Antonio Gaudi based on both their education and their large, organic, fantastical forms featuring multiple media. Although Bob Cassilly was classically trained, his creations are obsessive and personal in a way that suggests he makes prolifically not in response to but rather in spite of his classical education. Cassilly’s work is a rebellion against the rigidity of classical art and architecture. Inspired by the flowing lines of nature, he experiments with a multitude of media, inventing processes as he goes. Cassilly is doggedly anti-establishment and builds his weird and wondrous creations in a way that flies blindly in the face of convention, safety, and even occasionally OSHA standards, some would say.

Like much Art Brut, much of Cassilly’s work features personal symbolism. Many sites at the City Museum have semi-hidden auto-biographical meaning: the Museum’s Enchanted Caves were built to look like the Missouri caves where Cassilly had his first kiss. If you look closely into the gloom, the caves hold fanciful naked ladies, monsters and creatures abstractly carved and formed into the walls. These reference Cassilly’s? imaginative childhood. When he was young, he would look up from his pillow and study the shadows on his bedroom walls imagining the shapes into fanciful objects. There is also a four-story drip that was carefully built as a memento of the cave he and his family canoed through when his children were young. As Bob steered the boat under the drip, the three would catch water in their mouths. Much of the flora and fauna within City Museum reflect Missouri as well. And when we walk around this enclosed world, it is quite obvious that the beasts that roam the Museum come straight from the pages of Bob’s flights of fancy.

Photo By Jon Dejong - Creative Commons at Flickr

Photo By Jon Dejong – Creative Commons at Flickr


Where Cassilly diverges from outsider art is in the scale of his ambition and the way in which his operational mode gives his ambitions life. Where most outsider artists work a job and devote their free time to visionary art, Bob has found a way to make make his passion a fulltime pursuit. When Bob Cassilly quit producing commission work, he wanted to find a way that his “hobby project” could pay for itself. The plan was to make his dream – an art playground for adults – into a revenue generator. Bob would charge admission for people to visit City Museum, and the money would pay for the construction and materials. This was an extremely rough business plan at first: money was very tight and Bob would use nearly any kind of scrap, donations and pieces “rescued” from the city’s demolition sites to build his museum and stay out of foreclosure. In the beginning, he used leftover cement donated by local construction workers. He would be ready to cast cement at a moment’s notice when he knew cement trucks were on the way. But it wasn’t long after City Museum’s doors opened that people fell in love not only with the art, but also with the numerous tunnels and passageways Bob created throughout his structure. It’s the hidden paths that oblige you to crawl or slither through on hands and knees, sometimes in the dark, sometimes at spine tingling heights, that keep people coming back. If you aren’t willing to take the risk to crawl into this world, you don’t get the full experience. The risk is addictive, and after the first five years, City Museum was was self-sustaining.

Cassilly’s goal was to build a microcosm, a city within a city, where none of the rules applied, where Bob, other artists and the young at heart could be shielded from “the man.” “The goal is to repress the federal government and let people do what they got to do and not be crushed by a central authority. We try not to give in to the regimentation that comes with maturity. We wanna keep ourselves fresh by keeping ourselves slightly out of control.”

Photo by Charles Barilleaux - Creative Commons at Flickr

Photo by Charles Barilleaux – Creative Commons at Flickr

Today Cassilly’s work is so ambitious and on such a large scale that he works with three different teams of craftsmen to keep his projects going. His main team, Cassilly and Cassilly, is a crew of fifteen welders, tilers, cement sculptors, large scale fabricators, fiberglass fabricators, plasterers, and gunnite sculptors. This group works with Bob on whatever is currently his main project. A second crew of craftsmen work on the Loft apartments located above City Museum to realize Bob’s dream of a self-sufficient world within a world where you can work, sleep, eat, and play. Lastly there is a crew of five craftspeople in charge of repairs at the City Museum to keep things running smoothly.

Despite all these people, Bob still maintains complete creative control over every decision made at the City Museum, the City Museum Lofts, the MonstroCity complex in City Museum’s parking lot, the Cabin, City Museum’s bar, and the new rooftop attraction (yet unnamed) featuring a big top, slides a 1940’s Ferris wheel and a café. He is famous for his seemingly endless energy and creativity. Rick Irwin, the Museum’s director is in charge of keeping track of the production schedule and makes sure Bob has a chance to give his input before even the smallest element is repaired or changed. “Bob has complete artistic control. If a wall needs repainting, I put it on a list and check with him first on the colors.” Bob is constantly creating and recreating his world. Irwin says he is careful to leave soapstones and clay in his office, and have a marker in his pocket for Bob to draw with while he’s talking. “The welders do this too. They carry markers so he can draw and change things as he goes.”


Bob Cassilly’s sculpture is hard to explain. City Museum is made of tile, leftover cement, wood, old bottles, metal pans, masonry, acres of rebar, a school bus, and odds and ends. From the distance, this “museum” looks like a junkyard. At the front door of this former shoe factory, stands a three-story jungle gym made out of scrap metal, an old tree, a log cabin, and two Saber-40 plane bodies stands. Steel rebar connects these oddities through a series of passageways, tunnels and walks.

“City museum is like a really huge art installation,” says Cassilly’s onetime City Museum partner Matt Philpott. On the first floor are the caves, fish tanks, tunnels and pathways, an intricate tiled floor and the City Museum’s very own “white whale.” On floors two and three Cassilly rents space to like-minded creatives: City Museum houses an aquarium, a shoelace factory, glassblowing studios, a circus, a beatnick café, and a ride-on train. Outside is MonstroCity, the treehouse and planes complex connected by winding steel wire passageways. Above these are the City Museum Lofts, and above these, an almost-finished roof attraction.


Much as Los Angeles artist Simon de Rhodia’s Watts Towers has improved the sense of community and even property values in the Watts neighborhood around his masterpiece, Cassilly’s City Museum has brought a lot of positive traffic to a neighborhood that had basically been forgotten. Through ingenuity, a passion for unconventional mixed media, and a tendency towards frugality, Bob has made City Museum one of the best and oddest rehab ideas St. Louis has seen. He has transformed an impossibly big space into a garden of activity, or as he likes to say, “a world with no rules.” His unique creations come from his approach. Instead of shoring things up, cleaning and painting to make his world fresh and pristine, straight and new, he has carefully worked to make every surface, every wall nook and cranny an eccentric, organic, ornately embellished surprise. “ Bob doesn’t believe in square rooms.,” director Rick Irwin puts it, “He spent time putting a curved wall into my office so it would be more like a ship, less like a cubicle.” Instead of simple straight gridded lines, Bob aims to bend, curve or embellish every regular surface to make his world into a massive living, breathing beast, come to perch in the city’s north side. “One of my challenges is to hide the grid of structural columns in different ways.” When I returned to research this talk, I was surprised all over again to see how the very walls of the museum seem to move and reorder themselves under Cassilly’s hand.
Cassilly’s creations have worked a kind of magic on downtown St. Louis by encouraging artists to live, work, and eventually revive the city’s Washington street neighborhood. The city was a formerly industrial wasteland in 1993 when he bought his land; but since then an active artist’s loft district has grown up again around the Museum, due at least in part to the jobs and excitement Cassilly’s work provides. Not only are the local artists making a decent living from working at City Museum, but the influx of tourists the attraction draws has helped to support small eateries and galleries in the area. Today the area is highly desirable for young professionals: new high-end boutiques now populate the first floor of long-empty factory buildings, new roads and streetlights have been installed, and much of the warehouse space has been converted into lofts. The place buzzes with people, activity, and restoration efforts, day and night.
Since the Museum is made of urban castoffs of bygone architecture and industry, it complements the old loft architecture that surrounds it. What seems like rusty trash from the distance is cunning urban interactive sculpture when you travel inside. Bob had a huge building to fill with limited resources, so he began rescuing artifacts and building materials from abandoned sites and granting them a new life within his museum. Cassilly saves a lot of money through scavenging donations and buying architectural details cheap at salvage auctions. These practices of reusing salvage materials, now termed “green building” was just common sense to Bob, and made his scarce development dollars go further. The office doors are Anne Taylor doors from the St. Louis Galleria; much of the tile in the floors seems familiar because it is leftovers from the downtown St. Louis Center shopping mall; a new wall on the mezzanine floor is carefully composed of printing blocks from St Louis area offset printers.
While City Museum is finding a way to repurpose our “trash”, it’s also preserving our city’s history. St. Louis has a rich and beautiful architectural history from the turn-of-the-century, and while most St. Louisans won’t drive through the city looking for architectural gems, we all appreciate the pieces of our cultural past that Cassilly has salvaged. “Cassilly’s creations help me appreciate the beautiful moments in St. Louis architecture I don’t usually notice as much on the street” says Mary Henderson, a local artist and museum visitor. By reframing the pieces he finds, he gives these fragments new life. We love to get up close to the beauties, gargoyles, and cornices, entryways and elaborate tiles from condemned buildings we now only have in memory. City Museum embeds St. Louis’ fine and industrial history into every wall. The Museum resonates with its root materials.


How does Bob Cassilly feel about his success, his accolades, and his profits? In a recent interview with the St Louis Post Dispatch he sums up his success:“I don’t want to talk about money, that would be vulgar.” “He’s very humble” says City Museum director Rick Irwin. In fact, Bob has always had a love-hate relationship with the business and finance side of City Museum. “You have to pay admission to get in, but I hate that.” He even went so far as to embed pennies and nickels into the tiled floor of the City Store as a critique of greed and money-making. “I don’t really do it for other people. I do it because I see the world this way, and this is what I wanna do.”


What’s next for Bob? Though he’s still working on City Museum’s roof attraction, he admits that the loft district is now getting too gentrified for him. “He likes to live on the edge of civilization” says Rick Irwin. Ironically, though the City Museum has played a significant role in popularizing the downtown loft district, Bob is now thinking about moving. These days he splits his time between City Museum and Cementland, his new project. Bob has bought a cement factory in the neighboring northern municipality of Riverview and has begun constructing pyramids, a castle and a water park. He is considering moving there to get away from the people.
Every day the crew at City Museum save a little more of downtown St. Louis, and breathe new life into artifacts some locals had consigned to the wrecking ball. “Scrounging an old door or repurposing a bent ramp, isn’t noble, it’s just common sense” says Cassilly. For him it means they can build out a space for a lot less per square foot than even the cheapest construction crew, and what they get is oddity, uniqueness, surprise. Bob Cassilly never set out to save downtown St. Louis, but the City Museum is one of the most ingenious plans for urban revivification I have ever seen. Cassilly’s life work has taught us exactly how much fun adults can still have; he teaches us to wonder, to be passionate, and above all, to challenge the status-quo. Ask anyone who has crawled through the tunnels – this is some serious fun. We are Jonah inside the large bowhead whale. We are pilots; we are cave explorers inside the caves, which serve as a tribute to Missouri’s cave country. The place is beautiful, mysterious, magical. His mythological City beasts roam our dreams.

Cassilly, Bob. Interviews 2004-5.
Henderson, Mary. Interview 2004.
Irwin, Rick. Interview 2008.
Philpottt, Matthew. Interview 2004.
Maizels, John and Deidi von Schaewen, Fantasy Worlds, Taschen, Koln: Bendikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, 1999.

Category: History, Museums, St. Louis

About the Author ()

Jen McKnight is an associate professor of art and art history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Jennifer McKnight earned her BFA at Washington University in Printmaking and her Masters in Graphic Design at California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Her work is recognized in publications such as Print Magazine, :Output, and “Becoming a Graphic Designer: A guide to Careers in Design” by Steven Heller and Theresa Fernandes. Her design writing is published in the AIGA National Education Archives, Redaction Magazine, No Tasarim, as well as in Means by Which we Find our Way, edited by David Gardner and Andrea Wilkinson and Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions 4th ed.

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