In an industrial area just inside the northern city limits of St Louis, right beside the Mississippi River, is an overgrown lot containing the old Lafarge Cement Plant.
Viewed from the fence with the "no trespassing" sign, the site seems drab and unremarkable: plant operations ceased in the late 1970s, and construction companies have since dumped hundreds of thousands of truckloads of dirt. Other than a 250-foot smokestack and a row of silos, nothing stands out. But look more closely, and you'll see hints of something grand and whimsical -- clues pointing toward what this site could have become.
In 2000, a man named Bob Cassilly rode his bike past the old Lafarge site. He saw the abandoned buildings, the piles of dirt, and the untamed weeds, and had an overwhelming thought: I need to buy this place and turn it into a cement-themed adventure park where you can do all the things you're not supposed to do.
Cassilly, a sculptor, had a lot of out-there ideas. But they weren't just fantasies -- in 1983 he bought an old shoe factory in downtown St. Louis and installed caves, a 10-story slide, a rooftop Ferris wheel, a ball pit, and a massive jungle gym made from old airplanes and a fire truck. The transformed building, dubbed City Museum, opened to the public in 1997. It now attracts over 700,000 visitors per year.
Cassilly's plan for the cement site -- Cementland, he called it -- was even more ambitious. He aimed to build a castle, climbable pyramids, water slides, and a field of animal sculptures mixed with old factory machines. He planned to install a spiral staircase around the smokestack so people could climb to the top and throw rocks off the side. ("I haven't worked out all the details," he told St. Louis' Riverfront Times in 2000, "but the theory's sound. Everyone likes to throw rocks.")
For 11 years, Cassilly worked steadily on transforming the location, often shifting piles of dirt himself with a bulldozer. He built the castle. He constructed gazebos, installed bridges between the drab old buildings, and dug a lake where his future visitors could paddle canoes.
Then, on September 26, 2011, it all came to an abrupt end. Cassilly was found dead at the site, his bulldozer having tumbled down a hill in a freak accident. He was 61.
Cementland -- the dream; the playground; the big, weird place where you could be a naughty kid again -- lies silent and unfinished. Talk of what it could become periodically bubbles up, but for now the site remains a half-fulfilled promise, difficult to envision and impossible to define.
It's a fitting reminder of Cassilly himself. In 2000, he gave this answer to the Riverfront Times when asked how he responds to the standard American small-talk question, "What do you do?":
"I stutter. I get panic in my heart. I start looking out the window," Cassilly says, looking away. "I can't stand to define myself."
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Cassilly's other creations: