If the City Museum was a tribute to industrial repurposing, Cementland was meant to be its pinnacle.

By Mikkel Snyder 

I am not a Midwesterner by birthright, but I have called St. Louis home for the better part of a decade, and I’ve laid enough roots to get a reasonable sense of the place. You don’t live in a city that you love for that long and not learn a little bit of its history, its mysteries, its true treasures.

For example, if you were to visit and ask me where you should spend your time while passing through, I would tell you to skip going to the top of the Gateway Arch. While it’s an iconic part of the skyline, there’s not much else to see up there. That if you really wanted to be put into a state of awe, the true gem of downtown St. Louis lies just shy 1.5 miles west by northwest at the City Museum.

Originally curated by American sculptor and local legend Bob Cassily, the City Museum was a celebration of the various artistic industrial roots of the city. Founded in 1997, the City Museum is best described as a giant playground constructed from recycled industrial goods and collections of curios. A shrine to repurposing and history, it features multi-story slides, an extensive underground cave system, parkour ramps, and much, much more. You could lose days, let alone hours, trying to explore all of the nooks and crannies of the building. The contents of this singular building are impressive, but it merely serves as a prologue to the real epic.

Bob Cassilly working on a dragon sculptor in Trailnet RiverView Park in St. Louis, Missouri, in November 2008.

This is a story about a (formerly) abandoned cement factory, fifty-four acres, nestled next to a bend in the Mississippi River. This is about the unfinished magnum opus Bob Cassily left behind after he died under mysterious circumstances (and a bulldozer). This is about the ultimate attractive nuisance that St. Louis had on offer until June 2022. This is about the last documented expeditions to a place known simply as “Cementland.”

The South Perimeter of Cementland, circa 2020

Most of what I know about Bob Cassily is secondhand information, things gleaned from quick searches online. I know that he was born and raised in the city and got his art degree at Fontbonne, a small college currently eclipsed by the larger private university that is my alma mater. I know he was a sculptor. I know he converted the international shoe building downtown into what is now the City Museum. I know he had a family. I know that one of his daughters went to the same high school as a friend of mine, someone who can call themselves a true St. Louisian because they went to high school here.

I know that in 2011, roughly four years after Bob Cassily broke ground on Cementland, he died under mysterious circumstances, which is to say a bulldozer, which is to say suspiciously, to the point where the family got an independent autopsy to confirm that indeed some measure of assault and foul play had occurred, but there are no further footnotes about his end or what would happen to the remnants of his legacy.

The sites he left behind are the only true thing I have experienced firsthand to his story. It took years between learning about these places and going to them. The City Museum was the first place my local friends told me about when I first moved to town and it was the last place I went to before leaving St. Louis for what would eventually be a year stint in Wisconsin. It was a particularly blistering day in May 2013 when I made the trip. I remember the summer heat scalding parallel burn lines into my palms, I remember the molten bars of the skybound metal coils being a minimal deterrent to the husk of a plane. I remember looking at the multi-story slide affixed to the wall and tracing its path. I remember the whale and the cave system it sat atop of. The magic was magnificent and memorable in a way that called me back constantly.

I moved back to St. Louis in 2014, the same summer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. I spent a year trying to process that, trying to capture a narrative of courage and ingenuity, of 3D printed body armor and community networks, a fictionalized variant of the world I occupied. While researching set pieces where a vigilante could take up the mantle of superhero against the latest wave of police brutality, I discovered Cassily’s other endeavor.

A Bird’s Eye View of Cementland, from NextSTL

In my mind’s eyes, Cementland was meant to be this incredible visual set piece, an arena for a parkour competition, a fantastical area where I could showcase the athleticism of the protagonist. The aerial shot frames online showed towers and open expanses. It made sense that the place that captured my imagination would capture one of my characters. However, as the years passed, my attempts to finish the story couldn’t keep pace with the world and the thousands of thousands of words that I meant to share just became a personal project to help process. But the fascination with Cementland, that had latched onto my frontal cortex, which was perhaps always the point.

The South Entrance of Cementland, Circa 2020

Rewind eight some years back to 2007, Bob Cassily was profiled by the New York Times about his masterwork. They paint a vivid picture of what could have been if this world were more accepting of magic. One where Cassily’s sculptures stood shoulder to shoulder with rehomed industrial machines, while waterways flowed, guiding wanderers throughout the park. The profile concludes that Cassily’s goal was “similar to that of the City Museum: to create an unmistakable place ‘where people can come and do things they’re not supposed to.’”

By September of 2020 it was the local peak of the pandemic (not realizing that there were many more “peaks” in the future), and a cavalcade of factors fell into place pushing me to Cementland. It was Labor Day weekend. I had no work, I was already wearing a mask everywhere, so why not finally make the pilgrimage to the place that I had long mythologized in my head? I put on a long sleeve shirt, thick jeans, and hiking boots and made the plan. As I stood at the threshold, I played Vindata’s “Getting Away” in my headsets. The lyrics felt oddly poignant: It feels like I’m getting away with something.

Thinking back, I always imagined that “abandoned” meant empty, when in reality “abandoned” meant unattended. I made note of the trash piled high and wide, the shattered glass in buildings, but the first thing that really captured my eye was the sight of three rusted mechanical arms covered in vegetation. It was environment storytelling 101 straight out of something from Horizon Zero Dawn or Destiny, nature reclaiming the man-made ruins.

Three mechanical arms being consumed by overgrowth, 2022

There was no map of this place, although there were paths, downtrodden gravel roads that take you to various rundown buildings and structures. Some took to you crime scenes. Some took you to art exhibits. And one took you to a simple tribute to the man behind all of this. Just walking through the remnants of what could have been, I could see Cassily’s vision. If the City Museum was a tribute to industrial repurposing, Cementland was meant to be its pinnacle.

Broken glass in an abandoned building

The graffiti reads “The cities are death traps.”

One of the many abandoned buildings, 2020

Deeper within the building

I dared not plumb too deep lest I get lost or trapped, but for a few hours, I took random photographs and took in all the wonder. But I noted that the next time I went back, it would be more purposeful. It took two years before I could properly plan my last expedition to Cementland. This was not going to be exploratory. This was going to be an informal survey, a careful digital notation.

February 21, 2022, I journeyed to my basecamp that was the Missouri North Riverfront Park, the ideal location to start exploring the southern part of Cementland. This time, the entrance was worn, clear with tire treads. It didn’t register at the time, but the cement fence markers were nowhere to be found. It seemed sparser, which was probably the first sign that the times were actively changing, especially considering most the ground was still soft and muddy from a storm that happened the day prior.

Cementland, 2022. Note the lack of mechanical arms

Cementland, 2022

Even with hiking boots, some of the terrain was too treacherous to traverse safely, and my planned expedition to fully capture the place was stymied by the weather and odd construction sounds. While I managed to recapture some pictures I had taken two years prior that had given me a brief lay of the land, it was not nearly to the scope I hoped.

– Cementland, 2022

“Thank you Bob Cassily for creating one of the best mysteries on earth.”

As I headed into the heart, the largest building, I found evidence of machinery tracks, I made a point to leave, but not before walking the outskirts. I discovered the site formerly known as Cementland was in fact surrounded by live factories. Places that were actively doing something with their large concrete structures. It made sense that this prime piece of riverside real estate had value as a place of industry, but maybe the optimist wanted to see the Cassily estate follow through on the vision. Hell, maybe I wanted to follow through. But I wanted to document the passage of time. I wanted to preserve the “magic” of the place in the hopes of one day spurring more to see it from themselves, but that part was not fated to be.

It was a random day in early June this year, that a friend sent me the saddest article from the River Front Times. Barely four months after my venture, it was reported that Cementland was sold for industrial purposes. And that was that. The end of a whole mythological place ended with a news article.

It makes sense, the space is usable and right now is more in squalor. But I don’t think the message is that the promise of magic must eventually sacrificed for the mundane. It’s that the memory of the magic must be preserved and promoted.

A Stone Fixture with the phrase “Safety Follows Wisdom”, an ironic epitaph.

I doubt someone has gone and taken a cement cutter and carved out the more beautiful graffiti and sculptures. The scraps of metal and stone that could have been statues will probably be swept away. The buildings will likely be demolished, including the enigmatic spire at the center of it. Or maybe it won’t. But Cassily left the world with the idea of Cementland. Cassily’s City Museum still offers the same flicker of wonder, and as it turns out there is actually another abandoned Cassily installation in St. Louis by the name of Rootwad Park. We respect a persistent legacy of innovation and imagination.

But still, Cementland, even in myth and memoriam, will always be emblematic of its city. A confluence of creativity and innovation, a cathedral to reinvention and change, a terribly kept secret that those who know about it want to share.