It was once the trash heap of local industry. An abandoned and run down former cement factory, the decrepit lot on Riverview Drive had become a common site for local construction crews to dump truckloads of excess dirt and rock. The old factory meant so little, no one cared or tried to reroute them.
But when sculptor and visionary Bob Cassilly looked at the site, he saw something more. He saw an art amusement park celebrating the history of cement production in St. Louis, filled with statues and sculptures and old machinery turned into fascinating attractions, and that’s what he began to build in the space.
Locations with formerly booming industries often find themselves with the opportunity to celebrate their cultural and economic history with an amusement park exhibiting that glory. Southern Indiana, known for its famous limestone quarries, has its half-constructed limestone pyramid. In Vietnam, there is the Suoi Tien Cultural Theme Park, celebrating the local Buddhist tradition.
Bob Cassilly had already put St. Louis’s name on the oddball art park map with the City Museum, a sprawling playhouse built from repurposed industrial and architectural objects. Cementland was his opportunity to create again, this time with acres to expand.
So he got a bulldozer and combined it with his artistic ambition. The park would fit right in with his long history of whimsical, playful sculptures and projects, all hinging on the intersection between childhood nostalgia and subversive counterculture. He invited the construction crews to keep dumping their leftover dirt — it was simply more material for him to play with. To create with.
Before long he had created a castle of sorts out of the old factory, with a courtyard of sculpted creations made of cement, rock, metal and antique machinery. Bridges spanned spillways and depressions where water would collect into pools to form moats and ponds. In short order, people caught notice, and couldn’t wait to see what the project, still in its infancy, would eventually become.
Unfortunately, in 2011, Cassilly tragically died when the bulldozer he was operating tipped off of an unstable ledge and rolled over. He died doing what he loved, but what he loved was far from finished.
Today, the unfinished park, still closed to the public, is an attractive spot for oddity searchers, sculpture fans, graffiti artists, and late-night teenagers. There are no illusions that it is complete or well-maintained at this point, but Bob’s widow, Giovanna Cassilly, hopes to keep the project going. She launched a website to collect inquiries and information for curious and supportive fans. After years of probate proceedings, the 55-acre Cementland was released to her in the fall of 2015 and building may resume.
Memorials to Bob Cassilly have been held in the park, candlelight vigils and the launching of lit balloons into the night sky. But perhaps the best memorial to the man, his life, and his ideas, is all around you when you visit - the park itself.
Update December 9 2016: A heavy warehouse fire raged at the cement factory, causing the roof to fall in. Over 60 firefighters worked through the night to put out the blaze.
Know Before You Go
North side of St. Louis riverfront, just before the intersection of Scranton Avenue and Riverside Drive. Bring a flashlight and sturdy shoes.