To Preserve and Protect: Esley Hamilton has a boundless passion for St. Louis' architectural past

Drop the name Esley Hamilton to anyone in St. Louis who cares about architectural preservation, and you’ll hear stories of someone who can, through his encyclopedic knowledge of local buildings and their histories, save a park, a university library or even alter the course of a major interstate highway.

A 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile went so far as to compare him to Superman, that is, if the Man of Steel had never bothered to change out of his Clark Kent spectacles, khaki pants and buttoned-down shirts.

Officially Hamilton, who is 64, is St. Louis County Parks & Recreation's preservation historian, a position he has held for nearly 30 years. One of his chief responsibilities is surveying the historic buildings in the county's 91 municipalities and determining which ones should be nominated for official recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

Esley Hamilton in front of one of his favorite buildings
Esley Hamilton in front of one of his favorite buildings
The Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kirkwood
The Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kirkwood

In his spare time, Hamilton leads walking tours of historic neighborhoods, assists civic groups in writing their own nominations to the National Register, gives lectures on St. Louis' buildings and teaches a course in landscape architecture at Washington University.

"Esley gives us academic credibility," says Michael Allen, editor of Ecology of Absence, an online magazine devoted to historic preservation. "He's important because he knows all the stories. He sees how the architecture of a building fits into larger patterns and its role in architectural history."

Hamilton himself is pleased — but slightly embarrassed — by all the praise. Sure, he wrote the National Register nomination that brought in money to spruce up Tower Grove Park, and it was his suggestions that spared Washington University's Olin Library from renovations that would have compromised its clean modernist lines. And yes, he did the research that persuaded the Missouri Department of Transportation to "tweak" its plan for Highway 40 in order to spare three houses in Richmond Heights that were part of the county's first African American housing development.

Still, he's reluctant to take credit for what others call his feats of civic heroism. "When I advocate for historic preservation," Hamilton says, "I'm expressing a consensus of opinion, not just my own."

His ability to understand buildings, he adds, is really not that extraordinary. "You first have to look," he explains in his boyish, slightly nasal voice. It's a source of annoyance to him when people who should know how to look don't.

Hamilton gets irritated when architects start drawing up plans to fill empty space without considering what's already there. He's disgusted that the downtown federal courts building blocks the view of the Arch from Hi-Pointe, on the city's westerly edge. He's also dismayed that the San Luis Apartments, recently torn down in the Central West End, will be replaced by a parking lot instead of another building.

"The stonework in the new buildings at Wash. U. is totally contrary to the intent of the architect, James Jamieson," he exclaims. "They're using granite. Jamieson wanted to avoid that. The new building has different-colored mortar. The site planning of informal thought is given to spaces. The client can't read the plans. The perspective drawing costs money, and nobody's going to say, 'That's not right.' The situation at Wash. U. is tragic."

Hamilton, in fact, has been so vocal about his views on the university's architecture that he is no longer permitted to give campus tours. "There's been some concern about what I should be saying in public from the parks department and county administration," he admits.

These days, though, Hamilton has more to contend with than poorly planned university campuses. The San Luis may be just one of many mid-twentieth-century buildings facing the wrecking ball. "The 1950s was one of the greatest periods of St. Louis architecture," he explains. "But the popular attitude is a cyclical process. Something becomes very popular, then slightly old-fashioned. The children of the people who built it hate it."

In 2007 Hamilton prepared a list for the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission of more than 60 "outstanding examples" of midcentury modern architecture from across the county. Among the most endangered structures on the list was the 54-year-old Henry Hampton House in Richmond Heights, designed by Harris Armstrong. Hampton was a filmmaker who made the civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, and Armstrong was the first modernist architect to work in St. Louis.

In Jefferson City, meanwhile, legislators are still haggling over whether to eliminate the generous tax credits that, since 1998, have made rehabbing a less expensive — and, therefore, more attractive — alternative to knocking buildings down altogether.

Tax credits aside, there is very little legislation to protect historic buildings. In St. Louis County, only fourteen municipalities have preservation ordinances on the books. "This is a strange time for historic preservation," Hamilton says, shaking his head.

Every Friday, Hamilton and his intern, Catie Myers, leave the office for a "windshield survey" expedition. Their ultimate goal is to catalog every church and synagogue in St. Louis County that was built between 1940 and 1970. Hamilton estimates they'll visit 400 buildings before they're through.

Once they've finished cataloging, Hamilton will decide which churches are most representative of midcentury modern and set to work getting them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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