I have a proposal: Let's turn Cementland into a music venue, St. Louis.
Because it would be fitting. And perfect. And because, well, I want everywhere to be a music venue.
Maybe it's a symptom of Midwest ingenuity, but we like alternative performance spaces. Many of my favorite concert memories involve inventive and/or illegal locations, and this summer it seems like more and more events are taking place outside of the regular music venues. Stag Nite in the Woods is coming up this weekend. Local punks are hosting BYOB generator-powered shows on the riverbank. Just last weekend there was a huge house show off of Cherokee Street. And a few weeks ago I was lucky to catch a performance in a modern plaza outside the Old Post Office downtown.
My raver friends have been doing this for decades now, hosting parties in vacated warehouses, abandoned railroad stations and other places that are otherwise unoccupied. And though there's an occasional rave in a cave or a park or a barn or a skate rink, historically these parties have been hosted in the industrial area of north city, not far from the Cementland location.
Illegal parties thrive here partially because it's kind of a lawless land. With little or inefficient police presence, sometimes there is no one around for miles to either protect or harass these party pirates. But north city is experiencing a resurgence of sorts, led by urban pioneers seeking cheap land, organizations interested in preserving the beautiful old buildings and people looking to open businesses in cool locations. These groups are hellbent on resurrecting the once-thriving neighborhoods, now crumbling because of crime, neglect and brick theft.
I can appreciate that, but I don't roll much to the north side, preferring, instead, to let others fix 'er up before I partake. A pioneer, I am not. While I'll admit to a vague passing curiosity for what lies in the darkness on the edge of town, I'm a cautious person. I see the beauty in decay, but I also see the danger that could result from this particular style of voyeurism. Most of the architecture up there is beyond beautiful, but the places that look like they've been bombed and then rained on with syringes are not for me.
But I have curiosity and a sturdy pair of boots and a deep interest in all things Bob Cassilly-related, so I found myself at Cementland over the weekend, checking for any changes at the location and thinking, again, that this place could be the coolest music venue ever.
Cassilly's work is well-documented, and so was his recent death on location at Cementland and the issues with his estate. The loss of his life was not just a loss for his family and friends, but also to the local arts community and to people interested in a better (and greener) St. Louis. As the designer, visionary and proprietor of the City Museum, Cassilly's memory looms large. In a city that is notoriously adverse to change, Cassilly was a badass who pushed boundaries with a combination of childlike hopefulness and adult stubbornness.
He was prolific, especially in town, and he's left his mark all over the city. Those turtles at Turtle Park? The apple chairs in Webster Groves? The sea-lion sculptures at the zoo? That giant butterfly outside the Butterfly House in Chesterfield? All Cassilly's. Though his time was cut short, it he still accomplished a nearly inconceivable amount of work during his life.
Cassilly's unique artistic marriage of architecture, sculpture, industry and business caused a cross-pollination effect, encouraging all sides in a parallel way. He remains one of the main figures in the revitalization of Washington Avenue and, in effect, all of downtown St. Louis. And it's hard to imagine newer free public art projects like the Citygarden being welcomed or completed in a pre-Cassilly downtown. His work sparked a renaissance.
I have a bit of a bias here because I have a special interest in Cassilly's life and work.
Some years back, I was almost his personal assistant. We had friends in common, and I was recommended to his family as someone who was artistically minded, patient and bullshit allergic. After passing some sort of prescreening, we started digging into what my daily duties would include. I'd have to keep his life organized, schedule meetings, endure his moods, indulge his whims and be able to politely tell people to fuck off. None of that was any problem. But when it became clear that the job also entailed a fair amount of nannying for his two young children (including driving them to soccer practice), I declined the position. I can tell people to fuck off all day, but I don't do juice boxes.
Anyway, I'd always held a fondness for the man's work in my heart, but after an insider glimpse into his busy, crazy life including constantly trying to keep up with family, projects, lawyers, red tape and city officials, I had a new respect for Bob, personally.
And his vision was always strong, even at the incomplete Cementland. I'm sure his plan for the area was greater and grander than any of us suspect, but the site already contains some of Cassilly's signature style. Brightly painted concrete bits and bent iron sculptures stand proudly near what would've been the entrance, poking out through fields of overgrown weeds.
My Cementland exploring partner and I were in awe the sheer scale of the project. When Bob did anything, he did it big. And there is plenty of space to work with here, especially when you think of it as a potential performance venue.
The already-present bowl shape of the land is all set up to be an outdoor amphitheater. The numerous buildings, trailers, sheds and shacks on site could be easily converted into mini-venues, bars, concessions, lounges, backstage areas and storage space. In addition, the on-site silos could serve as natural echo chambers and sound enhancers. The area has very few neighbors (therefore very few potentials for sound complaints), and the parking options are endless.
The inside of the property had minimal graffiti damage, and it didn't appear as vandalized as I'd feared, but maybe it was Cassilly, himself, who did some of the spray paint jobs. Who knows? And while there are piles of metal and concrete everywhere (which were probably intended for use as building materials), it all seemed to be in decent shape. It wouldn't take much effort to clean out the debris and change the property into something else. In fact, doing this would be keeping with Cassilly's legacy of using spaces that were set up for one thing and presenting them in a new, entirely different context. After all, this is the same guy who turned the mostly abandoned International Shoe building into a world-class tourist destination in fewer than three years.
If he'd been able to finish the project, the potential for the surrounding area would've been endless. Would people have tried to build lofts near the confluence? Would there be food trucks on Chain of Rocks Bridge? Could I finally rent one of those mini-mansions built on the water pumps in the river?
Cassilly was magic, and it would be shame to see his vision to go waste. Somebody needs continue on in his honor. Assuming that the property eventually goes up for sale, I hope the proper entrepreneur steps up. Let's do what we do best and drop some music on it.
Continue to the next page for pictures from our exploratory search.