12/08/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
AN ASPIRING SCULPTOR WAS ADMIRING MICHELANGELO'S Pietà in Rome's St. Peter's Basilica in 1972 when a hammer-wielding maniac began raining blows on the sublime sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ. "I leaped up and grabbed the guy by the beard," recalls Bob Cassilly, now 48, who scrambled onto the Madonna
's marble head to reach the disturbed Hungarian-born geologist, who was perched on a ledge. "We both fell into the crowd of screaming Italians. It was somewhat of a scene."
Twenty-five years later, Cassilly is creating another ruckus—and scaling new heights—with the nonprofit City Museum he and his wife, Gail, have opened in downtown St. Louis: a fantasia of Cassilly's own giant animal sculptures, stone trees and caves. Climbing is not only welcome, it's encouraged (but leave the hammers at home). Since he sold his first public sculpture in 1989, Cassilly's reputation has grown as rapidly as his work, which ranges from life-size (the hippo fountain in New York City's Central Park) to fright-size (a 67-foot bronze giraffe at the Dallas Zoo).
By allowing kids to clamber over the giant orange crab and through the 55-foot whale that inhabit his $5 million museum, Cassilly hopes to give free rein to their imaginations. "The hell with college if you're understimulated at 3," he says. Or 43. Grown-ups too can be found squeezing through Cassilly's concrete tunnels. Says Bob Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society: "It speaks to the sense of magic and whimsy that too often we lose as we grow up."
Not Cassilly. The son of a building contractor and a homemaker, his epiphany occurred while he was building an underground city in the dirt beneath the porch of his family's Webster Grove, Mo., home. Eavesdropping on the serious, grown-up conversation taking place above, he recalls thinking, "what a shame not to be 11," as he was. In other words, says Gail, 50, the museum's executive director, "he decided he was never going to grow up."
At 14, Cassilly worked part-time for a local sculptor and skipped school to sit in on college art classes. After graduating with a fine arts degree from Font-bonne College in 1972, he did renovation work to support his art. He began dating Gail while they were pursuing master's degrees at Fontbonne, and they married in 1983 (his earlier marriage ended in divorce in 1980). The architectural carving and casting company they started together soon drew commissions for critters from zoos and parks.
Now the couple share their converted church mission house with children Max, 12, and Daisy, 8. The realities of family life, however, have hardly restrained Cassilly's inner child. His ambition for his growing museum? "To have the biggest toys on the planet."
MARY M. HARRISON in St. Louis