Sunday, December 4, 2011
In recent years, the city of St. Louis has watched the incredible growth of the freakishly eccentric “City Museum” from a crazed vision of aesthetically warped urban detritus to a cultural gem, an advertising point for the city. It was the creation of one man’s ambitious and slightly crazed mind: Bob Cassilly. It’s intensely weird–a phantasmagoric array of everyday items, which you engage with as aesthetic objects rather than objects serving a function. Hence, the urban oddities are turned into art, and you are able to see their beauty, or plain absurdness. It’s Quite-Visibly-Bizarre presence right off Washington Avenue has been a galvanizing player in the slow process of revitalizing downtown St. Louis.
But somewhere along the line, Cassilly started to get antsy. In 1999 he handed over the “head curator” title and bought 54 acres of very strange property very far north in St. Louis. It’s the site of an old cement factory, more than 80 years old. The company went bankrupt in 1987, and everyone involved dissipated, leaving these skeletal remains. He said of it “These are some of the most fantastic things. Look at these incredible works. They're everything a mall in the year 2000 is not. They're massive and overbuilt and ambitious, simple, beautiful forms. There are thousands of these plants, and they tore down half of them.” He dubbed it “Cementland,” and the first time I ever heard of the place was in my Freshman year of college, courtesy of Logan Alexander, a Junior ComDes major at the time. Since then, I’ve checked in with the international informational storage and category syndicate, “Google” about once ever six months or so. Each time, I would find a few wisps of information about the mythic site, but never an address. Articles would cite its location as “north, and near the river.” It took me until early this year to finally find it–albeit in a tragic development. On September 26, 2011, Bob Cassilly was killed at Cementland. Early in the morning, he was terraforming some of the 80,000 pounds of earth which Cassilly was using to form Mayan pyramids when his bulldozer slipped down one of the faces–it flipped five times and crushed him. There was a flurry of articles that popped up online, and several of them finally listed an address. So I went. And I think it might have changed my life.
One of the most fundamental parts about Cementland is that no one can really talk about it appropriately. For simple descriptive purposes, it’s a site filled with mammoth concrete edifices, long left dormant and filled with machines whose purpose and scale are truly baffling. Everywhere, the natural world is slowly meshing with gnarled concrete decay. Ivy resolutely climbs the central 250 foot tall smokestack, small trees grow atop massive concrete silos. In the center of the park, its easier to tell how it’s been shaped by Cassilly and his workers, where farther from that epicenter, its often so foreign and askew from our normal worldly perceptions that its difficult to discern if what you are looking at is art in a normative sense, or simply ruins. The express difficulty in any form of encapsulating description of the place is rooted in the experience of going there. My goal is to try to convey what, maybe, Cementland means.
How to get there. First, you have to be prepared. When I go now, I always have rope, a knife, water, coffee (obviously), sturdy shoes and a flashlight. Once you’ve packed your bag, the journey commences. Blaring tunes and banter are key players. Once you get to the Mississippi, you hop on highway 70 until Broadway. But as soon as you get off, the scenery starts to change. Suddenly you find yourself deep within North St. Louis: it’s practically like being dropped in a third world country, and establishments like “Playboy’s Cappucino Lounge” and other like-minded business ventures are peppered along the drive. Then you take a right on Riverfront, and things get even stranger. Clandestine factories with sheet metal siding are the dominant features. These mysterious and vast warehouses signal a change: slowly you’ve slid into a distant place, and far from the society you thought you knew. This is the underbelly, these facades are the industrial component to making America what it is–it’s rare that you consider the place, the machines that make all these devices and components we’re surrounded with.
Suddenly, on your left, you see a long fence running along a ridge you cannot see over, but the posts are massive cement mixer hulls, all painted in different colors. It’s at this point you can begin to feel the place–you know you’ve arrived. As you take a left where the fence ends, you catch the first clear glimpse of what you maybe thought Cementland would be: a truly massive hangar, part of which is knocked out in a gaping maw. There’s vegetation sprouting up on and among the metal, and a ten foot fence with barbed wire lining the whole site. The first time we went, we walked for what felt like an hour around the entire perimeter, looking for a way in. We could see spots where other adventurers had bayed down the steel at points, or burrowed under it. Finally we discovered the most logical way to enter: train tracks run along the western side which open up into the park after a healthy walk along the rails. One of the sets of tracks is still in use, and you have to be careful a cargo train doesn’t come barreling by. But once you’re in, you’re in–and you suddenly realize you have no idea what the hell you just signed up for. It looks like one of those Discovery channel shows about what cites would look like fifty years after humans are gone. It’s eerily quiet and still–the stupefyingly large buildings have a wizened permanence to them, their drab gray shells festooned with graffiti and rust, like scars.
The first time we went, we went on a Wednesday. We were inside for only a handful of minutes before a woman who was previously focused on brickwork until her saunter over to our position informed us that the park was strictly closed, especially after the death of Bob, buuuuut, if we came back on a weekend, “there’s no one here. Feel free to spray paint anything and take anything you want.” Her face was filled with enough metal whose scrap value was enough to feed someone at McDonalds so we knew she was cool with it. The fact that you’re officially not allowed in, but heavily recommended to do so adds perspective on what the culture is like. It’s a place that has a community, a body of followers who have no choice but to promote it, to share it’s incredibly raw ethos with the world. Cassilly described it as “a giant art installation you can play in. It's anti-elitist. Arts have alienated everyone in the world. This is a place to bring together different disciplines. Other people may want to start helping -- they'll want to do something here, maybe have a little piece of it." As soon as I took something from Cementland the first time, I knew I was going to have to give back.
Inside the buildings, you walk into room upon room whose purposes you can barely begin to fathom. Stairs are simply suspended in space, floating curling stairs eighty feet in the air. Nothing is roped off–you realize very quickly that this is not like any other “park,” there is no one who has gone through and said oh wow, that’s not safe, we should do something to prevent stupid people from killing themselves on that. You assume your own level of risk: I for one have been in a handful of circumstances where I know any wrong step is, quite literally, a lethal mistake. But there’s something that happens to you once you’re there. The scale of it all, the assumed oblique uses for all of the crazed machinery turns you into a body of unadulterated marvel: you stare and stare and stare, and say softly oh wow–oh man. You become an industrial spelunker, an archeologist for machines. There is spray paint everywhere: but usually it’s not the crass, run of the mill stuff. It’s as if everyone who ventures into the place develops a quiet veneration in the shadows. In one building, there is an entire floor which has a twenty foot tall ceiling, filled only with industrial vacuums, designed to clean the air of dust. Just think about that for a moment: a warehouse floor filled with NorBlo vacuums, each of which is about the footprint of a large master bedroom. Or a machine that wouldn’t fit in a semi truck, constructed entirely of cast iron, comprised of larger-than-your-wingspan gears and wheels, whose purpose turns out to be vicegrips. For what purpose do you need a clamp that powerful?? The mind boggles in the wake.
The state of mind which I seem to perpetually exist in at Cementland is something close to a mystical reverence, or stupid awe. The fundamentally human joy of exploring is never so heightened: you traverse subterranean tunnels and bunkers whose temperature is twenty degrees colder than the air outside and whose dark is so complete you feel as if you are drudging through something solid, and then climb 150 feet to the tops of silos that have exposed holes at their tops, running straight through nothingness to the ground below. You can see the St. Louis skyline in all the grandeur it has to offer, shimmering tangerine in a fading sunset. The Mississippi curls around the south side of the park, seemingly only a stone’s throw–and it looks beautiful. There is an airplane, what appears to be an early spacecraft, machines used to construct cars, a laboratory with tables stacked with blueprints of the structure’s designs, a collection of marble slabs that’s probably worth enough to buy a yacht with, entire storerooms filled entirely with plastic streetlight covers. I could go on and on. It’s breadth and obfuscating opulence extends into absurdity.
The factory is also a true relic of a history which is traceable. On one of my early ventures to the park, we were able to get into the central warehouse, which normally you cannot get into (a gate had been improperly shut, to our intense gratitude). It’s the worker’s workshop, and the site of the old offices for the factory. In a back room, we discovered some truly incredible documents (of which we didn’t get pictures!). We found the original deed for the property, signed in the early 20’s by Portland Cement Co, then the change of hands that it underwent in the 70’s to Lafarge Cement Co, and the bankruptcy papers from 1987. We saw the bill of sale for it’s purchase in 1999, signed by Bob Cassilly, and his establishment of the business “Cementland,” all splayed out on a table. In the room directly past this one, there was a desk whose surface was covered in a one foot tall mound of Playboys, all dating from the mid 80’s to early 90’s. I found a book on the shelf titled “Wrought Iron,” whose first page shows the scrawl of three separate directors of the plant (minus Cassilly), whose last note reads simply “Anyone who has the opportunity to steal this–don’t fail to do so. I thank you.” It now sits on my bookshelf. The following pictures we were able to glean from the desk as well–they show the plant in the early 60’s, fully functioning and so very drastically different from its modern condition.
So what is Cementland? Is it art? Is it simply industrial ruins? Perhaps Cassilly himself understood it the most intimately: "They talk about historic districts and stuff like that, but one of the main things is, our architecture is basically copying shit from Europe. But our industry, it's kind of like jazz, it's an American, original thing. Why not look at it for what it is? It's impressive. It might be threatening, but you can't help but be impressed by it." And that’s just it. You can do any amount of theorizing about what Cementland means or represents, but in the end, its essence is this: a grotesquely gargantuan collection of outdated edifices, locked in an industrial, geologic time which exists in a realm out of reach in our modern lives. We can only hope to brush up against it, wander in awe through it’s mystic mausoleums and try to understand these remains of raw human might.
A list of brave adventurers who have seen this crazy place with me:
R.I.P. Bob Cassily, and thank you for everything you've done to make this city a better place