How City Museum defied building codes to become a St. Louis landmark
In 1993, artist Bob Cassilly purchased what would become City Museum, an eccentric, and inimitable, St. Louis gem.
Originally, the Washington Avenue warehouse was home to the International Shoe Co. Later, Washington University used it. Cassilly saw potential in the 600,000-square-foot building and embarked on an ambitious plan: to build a museum that never stopped construction. He first opened its doors 25 years ago but continued to work with a team of 15 people known as the “Cassilly Crew” to bring his dream to life even as the museum’s reputation grew.
Cassilly and his crew masterfully turned salvaged materials, like a vault from the former First National Bank and abandoned airplanes, into attractions for kids and adults alike to climb in, on and over. Over the years, Cassilly collected nearly 30,000 pieces of old machinery and other bits to include in the museum.
The word “museum” sometimes throws people off, because City Museum more closely resembles a giant jungle gym. But, for former Cassilly crew member Dave Blum, it makes perfect sense.
“City Museum is like a house of inspiration made out of parts of a city — and that's the reason he called it a museum,” Blum said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.
Cassilly died in a construction accident in 2011, but his legacy lives on. As City Museum celebrates 25 years, its rooftop yellow school bus and iconic 10-story slide have become destinations for visitors from around the country. By exploring its slides and caves, people can conquer their fears of heights, tight crevices and dark spaces.
“It’s a place that kind of pushes people's buttons and boundaries,” said Leef Armontrout, who worked with Cassilly and is still on City Museum’s crew. “After spending my first month in stupid high places and tiny little holes, I'm not claustrophobic, and I am not afraid of heights.”
When Cassilly was alive, crew members recall, he put the typical construction process in reverse. Normally, you draw the plans first, then send them off to be approved by officials, and only then do you start construction. Not at City Museum.
“We would build something and then — after it was built — have architects draw it,” Blum said. “The city inspectors would come out and Bob would say, ‘Oh no, it’s already done. City Museum passes for everyone!’”
Despite parts of the museum appearing dangerous, the crew insisted that they zealously overbuilt features.
“If this footbridge needs to be able to hold 20 people, well, we'll just build it so it can hold like 10 dump trucks,” Blum said of the crew’s logic.
Legend has it that City Museum forced St. Louis to invent new building codes.
“Like addendums on how to build a treehouse inside of a building and all this other stuff, because Bob was the first person to do this,” Blum said.
Cassilly spontaneously opened exhibits when he saw fit and didn’t necessarily wait for permission from inspectors to do so.
“He’d start ripping down caution tape, and all the kids would come in and give you your little power tools you haven’t picked up yet,” joked Joe Bacus, who started working at the front desk and found himself enlisted into the Cassilly Crew.
Sometimes the crew would work for weeks on a project, only to come back from the weekend and find Cassilly ripped it out. Crew member Leef Armontrout recalls a frequent saying: “Nothing is sacred.”
The men agreed that Cassilly was the visionary — and that, in order to follow along, much less execute, they needed to speak “Cassilleese.” One of the people who understood Cassilly the best was Kurt Knickmeyer, an original crew member and a “construction genius,” Blum said.
“Bob would go to Kurt every single day and be like, ‘All right, here's this crazy thing I drew on a napkin. It's some crazy dragon squid creature,’” Blum said. “‘Here's your crew. It's just a bunch of alcoholic morons I hired off the street. Here's all your tools, like all of them are broken. And here's your materials — all this garbage I've been collecting for years. And when you're done, little children are gonna climb all over it.’ And Kurt would just deliver on that, every day for 30 years.”
Cassilly’s mode of communication could cause frustration, but overall the crew understood his workflow.
“It's like a stream of consciousness for him,” Blum explained, “because he was an artist, and he was just kind of making stuff up as he did it.”
Generally, Cassilly was open to trying out crew members with little construction experience, but he had no problem weeding people out.
“It was a collection of misfits. Whether you're a Wash U grad or a homeless person off the street, everyone always got a chance to carry a bucket,” longtime crew member Daniel Heggarty said, confessing, “I personally lied and said I knew how to weld and figured it out.”
But even in the midst of City Museum’s constant chaos, Heggarty said there were life lessons to be learned.
“Bob taught all of us, ‘Don't let anybody teach you to be afraid of your ideas,’” he said. “Because if you just push for it, it'll come into focus.”
After Cassilly died in 2011, people sent applications to City Museum to fill his position. There was no chance of a hire.
“He's not a replaceable person,” Blum said. “An entire crew of people working as hard as they could even struggled to replace him, and we all worked very intimately with him every single day. It's not a fillable hole.”
City Museum was sold in 2019 to Oklahoma City-based Premier Parks. That’s meant some changes, with a greater focus on maintenance than new projects. The old Cassilly Crew has largely left for other jobs.
Yet Cassilly’s influence can be seen throughout the region, and not just in the many examples of his work within local parks or his unfinished Cementland project. It’s also seen in Sk8 Liborius, the indoor skatepark within a Catholic church that Blum is now devoted to, and BLA Studios, the Cassilly-style construction-and-design specialty firm founded by Bacus, which helped craft components for Square’s new St. Louis headquarters.
“Now we're doing City Museum-type stuff all over the place,” Blum said.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.