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Cassilly remembered as visionary, force of nature

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2011 - Bob Cassilly, creator of City Museum, was found dead Monday while working at Cementland, his newest project.

No one could deny that Bob Cassilly was a man who could see the possibilities in a situation that escaped everyone else.

With his quirky, eclectic and highly popular City Museum, he actually saw the future of bustling Washington Avenue long before it became real, says artist Philip Slein, who credits Cassilly for inspiring him to open his gallery there in 2003.

Calling Cassilly "an intensely brilliant and hands-on man," Slein added:

"He was a visionary who saw the potential down here and made something so creative and unique with the City Museum that allowed other people and myself to come down here. He was so vital and such a vigorous and powerful man that you figured he would live forever," Slein said.

Almost everyone who's lived in St. Louis for the past 15 years has enjoyed creative genius Cassilly, from Turtle Park to the Zoo to the Butterfly House. News Monday morning of his death at Cementland, his newest project, came as a shock to those who knew and worked with him.

Sculptor Bill Christman, who has work on display at the City Museum, said getting the news was like "getting punched in the stomach."

"There has never been anyone like him and there never will be," Christman said. "He's a force of nature like a hurricane or a tidal wave. He's irreplaceable."

University City Loop pioneer Joe Edwards praised Cassilly as a "wonderful eccentric" whose contributions to St. Louis and the entire arts community cannot be overstated.

"One of the most important things he did was to welcome and encourage other artists like Bill Christman and collaborated with them all," Edwards said.

Cassilly's death raises questions about the future of City Museum and the maintenance and continued growth of the site that has continually evolved in unexpected ways. Partnership for Downtown St. Louis would not speculate about the future of the museum. But the organization's president, Maggie Campbell, issued a statement about Cassilly's death.

"We are saddened and shocked to hear about the loss of one of downtown's urban pioneers. Our prayers and thoughts are with the Cassilly family," Campbell's statement said.

On his Facebook page, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, posted: "So sorry to hear about the passing of a creative St. Louis legend ... creator and founding director of the amazing City Museum on Washington Avenue ... Bob Cassilly.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to Bob's family, and our entire community thanks him for his vision, talent and faith in the future of St. Louis. He will be sorely missed."

The City Museum is an experience Susannah McLeod, one-half of the "Sus & Chlo On the Go" online travel show will never forget, for several reasons. The pair was videotaping an episode inside the City Museum this morning when they got the news.

"It was bizarre," McLeod said.

The year-old show has featured a half-dozen destinations in locations from New York City to Seattle. When the pair asked their Facebook fans where to go in St. Louis, the verdict was nearly unanimous.

"The City Museum was the most common answer by far," McLeod said. "Everyone said, 'You have to go.'"

Jodi Miller of Creve Coeur has taken her children, now ages 14 to 24, to the City Museum for more than a decade. And as the youth and camp director of Shaare Emeth temple, she has been planning a possible activity there in January.

"It's just a unique place where kids can have a blast -- all of them, from little kids to kindergarten all the way to high school. It's a huge place with surprises everywhere you look -- you never know what to expect there."

Miller summed up Cassilly's City Museum legacy by noting its fame far beyond St. Louis and Missouri.

"I don't think there's anything like it in the whole country," Miller said.

Five-year-old Ava Martin has visited the City Museum twice. Her mother, Jessica Martin, sees it as not only a place to for her daughter to enjoy the "big slides" and the aquarium, but also an experience to boost her developmentally.

"Ava's just getting to the age where she's beginning to test her fears, and the City Museum is the perfect place to do that."

Snakes and sparks

Leonard Sonnenschein, who started the world aquarium now housed in the City Museum, has known Cassilly for 20 years. When they met in 1992, Cassilly was working on his Turtle Park pieces and had just bought the building that would later become the City Museum.

Sonnenschein encouraged Cassilly to turn the first few floors into a museum. According to Sonnenschein, Cassilly replied that "no mother in West St. Louis County in their right mind is going to drive their Volvo station wagon full of children down to this area."

But Sonnenschein told Cassilly that his own wholesale reptile and fish business on Vandeventer and Cote Brilliante was protected by the large snakes he wore as he paraded up and down the street. In an effort to ward off any would-be intruders, Sonnenschein let it be known that the snakes ran loose at night in his building.

"Bob said, 'What you're telling me is that I need to put a snake around my parking lot?' and I said, 'Yes, it could even be a sea serpent,'" Sonnenschein said. "And so he did exactly that -- he built the sea serpent around his parking lot."

Nearly 15 years later, people from West County and every other St. Louis suburb trek to the museum every day it's open.

"Now this is one of the most interesting and vibrant areas of St. Louis," Sonnenschein said.

Susan Heggarty, Cassilly's Lafayette Square neighbor for nearly 30 years, recalled the artist's tenacity. In an email, Heggarty said that when she and her husband first moved into their home, Cassilly insisted upon painting a decorative diamond pattern on a slate portion of their residence.

The project required Cassilly to climb out the Heggarty's third floor window. And in a possible foreshadowing of Cassilly's MonstroCity with its dangling school bus, he worked precariously from 60 feet above the ground.

"I watched him edge across our gutters with brush and bucket and my heart in my throat," Heggarty said.

After the city used chains to create access barriers to Hickory Street, where they all lived, Cassilly cut them in two on several occasions, Heggarty said. He was also known for painting roaches on a Raid billboard that was disliked by all the neighbors. Each time a new sign went up, he painted on more roaches until the billboard came down.

"He was certainly one of the sparks that has ignited Lafayette Square," Heggarty said.

Mourners gathered tonight outside artist/entrepreneur Bob Cassilly's City Museum to pay tribute to the man whose art can be seen throughout the area.

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