The City Museum’s founders, Bob and Gail Cassily, purchased a 750,000 square foot building in 1983 for sixty-nine cents per square foot in downtown St. Louis. Back then, the mostly vacant structure held the former International Shoe building offices and its ten-story warehouse. The couple renovated the building, and in 1997, opened the City Museum. Their mission statement: "To reawaken the childlike imagination, joy and sense of wonder in all of us."
A sculptor by trade, Bob’s creation evolved out of anything he could get his hands on. All of the materials he used were found locally, including an old generator from the largest windmill in the world. The museum’s front doors are from Old Southtown Famous-Barr, a former St. Louis institution. A true testament to, 'one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure,' when Bob learned that the city’s construction trucks dumped leftover concrete at the end of each day, he asked that they dump it at the museum instead. He then used the concrete to build a fantasy maze of caves. Refrigerating coil donated by Anheuser-Busch was turned into a “slinky,” which visitors can use to climb between floors.
Since it’s opening in 1997, the museum has constantly evolved and changed, without a set vision. The museum has been described as, “closer to a mad scientist's workshop than a cultural institution.” “It’s part playground, and part artist pavilion,” says Rick Erwin, the museum’s director. The museum houses: ArtCity (which features glass blowers, potters, and sculptors), World Aquarium, Architecture Hall (an event space), the world’s largest No. 2 pencil, and MostroCity – a monstrous outdoor playground featuring a school bus, aircrafts, a Ferris wheel and slides, all under one roof.
Casilly passed away in 2011, while working on Cementland, a 55-acre outdoor playground on the Mississippi River and his latest creation. Casilly’s team of artists and builders, the Casilly Crew, continues to update the museum, adhering to the museum’s established style. Director Erwin hopes the museum will expand to vacant floors, in the future.
Bob Cassily’s City Museum is thought to be a huge contributor to a renovation boom in downtown St. Louis. The museum, which drew 710,000 visitors this past year, has no doubt brought people to rediscover the area. And it's located one block north of Washington Avenue, which has become a trendy restaurant destination. His ever-evolving sculpture, born out of a mad scientist’s workshop, has become a cultural institution as well as an example of sustainable design, successful urban revitalization, and a playful soul.
Are there any creative souls in your city, which have sparked the revitalization of an area? Share you thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Credits: Data linked to sources. Images by Lindsay Naughton.