ST. LOUIS • Bob Cassilly dreamed big and worked in unconventional ways, from sculpting a giant praying mantis that lords over downtown to defacing his own art near Forest Park because he was upset the city applied a protective coating.
The founder of City Museum was known as much for his verve as he was for his laid-back attitude about safety hazards and his penchant for letting others worry about the details of his extravagant plans.
On Monday, Cassilly's artistic intensity took a tragic turn when he was found dead in a bulldozer he had been driving around his latest project, an old cement plant he was converting into an amusement park and concrete jungle.
Friends and authorities called the death an accident, saying the bulldozer had likely slid on a hill and flipped before landing upright.
The death of Cassilly, 61, shocked St. Louis' civic leaders and artistic community. They regarded him, fondly, as the city's patron saint of the strange and a driving creative force.
"Bob lived a life of excitement, and I'm glad that he didn't have to suffer from anything," said Bruce Gerrie, a curator at City Museum and Cassilly's longtime friend. "He went out as he was."
Co-workers on Monday found Cassilly dead inside the bulldozer's cabin, which was enclosed by a metal grate. The death was reported to police about 8 a.m.
Homicide detectives with the St. Louis Police Department arrived on the scene as a matter of protocol. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the incident because it is a workplace fatality.
One question to resolve is when exactly Cassilly died. Gerrie said Cassilly's family started to worry when he didn't show up to pick up his children late Sunday.
Cassilly was found on the site of the 55-acre complex he called Cementland. The property, which sits on both sides of the city's border with the village of Riverview, is north of the Baden neighborhood at the site of the old Missouri Portland Cement Co.
Cassilly had been working on the project for more than a decade and had missed his scheduled opening of 2010. He planned to incorporate the existing industrial silos into an elevated walkway, and then add man-made mountains, beaches, pools and a river with tunnels for rowboats and inner tubes. He had already built part of a castle — turret and all — on the land.
In 2003, he said he bought more than a dozen old Metro buses to use, somehow, on the site; two years ago, he applied to the city to build a $40,000 "lookout tower."
He once described the work in progress as a "morality play between good and evil."
It's not hard to see how a piece of heavy industrial equipment could have flipped on the Cementland site, which features steep inclines and narrow improvised roads.
But the terrain didn't keep Cassilly from his bulldozer. Alderman Dionne Flowers, whose ward includes Cementland, said that once, at a neighborhood meeting, residents complained about trees blocking their view of the Mississippi River.
"The next day, he was out there with his bulldozer," Flowers recalled. "Bob was well-known for his bulldozer."
With city officials and others, Cassilly could be equally frustrating and engaging.
Cassilly in 1996 unveiled Turtle Park, the turtle and snake sculptures near Forest Park, but he later spray painted tears and messages on them after the city put a protective resin on the sculptures, which he considered an affront to their integrity.
In 2002, Cassilly and Gerrie, his curator, were arrested after locking themselves in a parked car to protest the demolition of an old church tower. Police broke into the vehicle and wrestled them out of it.
City Museum, which he opened with his then-wife Gail Cassilly in 1997, has also drawn its share of controversy. It has been the subject of more than 25 personal injury cases over the years.
When it came to Cementland, officials said the prospect was exciting, even if working with Cassilly presented some challenges. In 2008, St. Louis and Riverview temporarily ordered him to stop work on the property because he had not obtained permits from either community.
"Every time I talked to him, he had a different idea," said Dan Fraley, building commissioner in Riverview. "Everything was in his head."
Even so, Cassilly was embraced by many local officials, who pointed to his work — such as the giant insect that sits atop City Museum — as signs of the city's vibrant energy.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, called Cassilly a "creative legend." Mayor Francis Slay pronounced that "the city has lost some of its wonder" and that Cassilly "pushed the envelope of what was possible."
A ST. LOUIS SON
Cassilly grew up in St. Louis and began sculpting when he was a teenager. He attended Vianney High School in Kirkwood and relished living in the area enough that, after moving briefly to Hawaii, he returned to St. Louis.
Cassilly was divorced from Gail in 2002. His current wife, Melissa Giovanna "Gigi" Zompa Cassilly, was in California when she learned of her husband's death. She was returning to St. Louis on Monday. The couple have two young children. In addition, Cassilly is survived by two other children from a previous marriage.
One of those children, Max Cassilly, 26, was hospitalized last month after two gunmen burst into his Dutchtown apartment and shot him several times with an assault rifle. Bob Cassilly said at the time that his son did not know his attackers and that Max was the victim of an attempted robbery.
On Monday afternoon, City Museum employees gathered at the building to talk and console each other.
"Right now, we're at a loss," said Rick Erwin, the museum's director.
The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The staff was unsure what the museum's schedule would be the rest of the week. But, Erwin said, there is no doubt that City Museum will continue. As recently as Friday, Cassilly and Erwin talked about a list of new projects that Cassilly hoped to accomplish in the coming months.
"You think about him as this force of nature," said Mike Killian, an electrician who has worked at City Museum and knew Cassilly for three decades. "And you don't think about those things having an end."
Current and former employees of City Museum joined family and friends of Cassilly's on the museum's rooftop terrace Monday evening to remember the artist. Over cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and swigs of whiskey, they shared hugs and handshakes, tears and stories.
"It's a shock," said Gary Moellering, who worked with Cassilly for 27 years. "He was just a wonderful guy."
A few others held a vigil outside the entrance, where someone had lit candles to illuminate the "City Museum" sign.
City Museum was hosting a corporate event Monday night. Visitors clambered up, down and through part of Cassilly's creation, an outside playground of wire tubes and suspended bridges.
"Oh, my gosh!" one man said as he climbed. "This is so cool!"
Kim Bell, Todd C. Frankel, Deb Peterson, David Hunn and Patrick M. O'Connell, all of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report.