On this overcast morning, Hamilton maneuvers his green Chrysler through Kirkwood and dictates architectural notes to Myers, who juggles a sheaf of survey forms, a ledger of addresses culled from old property records and a map — because even Hamilton hasn't been able to memorize every street in the county. ("It took me years to figure out I didn't know where everything was," he admits.)

"This is a very unusual building," he observes upon arriving at Vineyard Community Church on Dougherty Ferry Road. "The mortar joints are recessed. The panels over the entry are vattens with concentric squares. Look at the bond of the brick. That's an important design consideration. That's American common bond: It alternates long and short bricks every five courses."

Kirkwood United Methodist Church, Hamilton says, "is one of the most dramatic A-frame churches. It's inspired. The apex is one big skylight." In the sanctuary, he looks around in awe. "Everything about this is amazing to me."

"Historic preservation is about preserving parts of our past," says Karen Bode Baxter, a preservation specialist who has worked with Hamilton on a number of National Register nominations. "What we are today is based in the past. The buildings and physical environment are tangible reminders. A series of shotgun houses gives us an idea of the income and professions of people and the income of the community."

"There's a lack of public awareness of what was accomplished during that [midcentury] period," says Hamilton. "At the Missouri History Museum, I gave a talk about 1950s architecture, and someone said, 'If there was any.'" It was, he notes, the period of Gyo Obata's Temple Israel in Creve Coeur and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ruth and Russell Kraus House in Kirkwood. It was also the period of Hamilton's favorite structure in the city, the Arch.

Fifty years ago the Victorian style was wildly unpopular. Hundreds of buildings were razed, including everything ever designed by Charles Clarke, whom Hamilton considers one of the most prominent St. Louis architects of the nineteenth century. Clarke was the architect of the A.W. Fagin Building, the city's first skyscraper, which went up in 1888.

Hamilton most regrets the demolition of the Coral Court Motel in 1995. Long renowned as a "hot-pillow joint," because you could secure a room for a "rest period" and park your car in a garage, Hamilton considers it a masterpiece of 1940s motor-court architecture. "It was in the Streamline Moderne style," he says, "gold with red racing stripes and glass-block windows."

Hamilton tried to save it by nominating it to the National Register of Historic Places, but a building inspector declared parts of the Coral Court structurally unsound, and it met an untimely end. Hamilton still keeps a model of the motel in his office.

Had the Coral Court survived three years longer, it might have been saved by the historic-preservation program in Missouri, which has more rehabbed buildings than any state in the country. Since 1998 Missouri has granted a 25 percent tax credit toward the cost of rehabbing historic buildings, which, combined with the 20 percent federal tax credit, covers 45 percent of the cost. In other words, explains Hamilton, "it's cheaper for rehab than new construction." The program has become a national model.

Rehabs have been beneficial for the state largely because tax credits encourage people who might have chosen to leave St. Louis to invest in the city instead, leading to the revival of urban neighborhoods like Benton Park.

But now, laments Hamilton, "the current majority in the legislature is opposed to tax credits. It helps cities, and they hate cities. And there's resentment that the money is going to fat cats who are already rich." Senator Jeff Smith's scandal-ridden resignation in August, notes Hamilton, was a blow to preservationists. Smith was one of the legislature's strongest champions of tax credits.

The opposition to preservation has filtered down to municipal governments, much to Hamilton's chagrin. "We're leaders in the nation, but we're also the Show-Me State," he explains, "so they're reluctant to pass regulation of real estate. It's fine to tell people how high to cut their grass, but we can't tell them they can't tear their house down."


Hamilton owns a TV set, though he's never bothered to plug it in. He is, however, a fan of The Bernie Mac Show. He catches the 10:30 nightly reruns while working late at the office. As a gag, his coworkers once gave him a portrait of Mac and his TV family, to which they added Hamilton, standing behind the couch in a jacket and tie. A former colleague remembers that they also once made a sign for Hamilton's desk reminding him to go to lunch.

In Hamilton's seventh-floor office of the St. Louis County administrative building in Clayton, bookshelves are crammed with binders containing the results of earlier architectural surveys, as well as volumes about the county and its buildings and historical districts. He spends more time here than he does at home, the first floor of a 1940s two-flat in University City that, he says, "has no architectural character whatsoever."

The most striking aspect of the flat, in sharp contrast to his office, is its tidiness. The major decorating scheme is also books, but they are all neatly arranged on shelves. "I'm never here," he explains, showing off his gleaming white refrigerator, empty except for a jug of water and a bottle of soy sauce. Hamilton lives alone. He has never married or lived with a partner. Both his parents are dead; he was their only child.

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7 comments
Franklin
Franklin

He'll only warm up if you have a big name matched with big money. Esley is famous for giving "underlings" nasty looks. He is a nosy prick & we all can't wait til he retires. Get some new blood in that office, for crying out loud.

anon
anon

Esley has been CONSISTENTLY rude to me & I think he's a superlative jack-ass. Smug too.

Kathy Caldwell
Kathy Caldwell

Mr. Hamilton,I would interested to know a little more about the property and area in which I live. I reside in the Carondelet Park area and my house is over 130 years. I would love to be able to repair the outside of the home (restore) it remains pretty much the same. The inside was remodled prior to me purchasing the home. Please look up 718 Loughborough and let me know what interesting facts you might find. I found some info regarding German and French both living in the home after traveling down the Mississippi.

Mike Everman
Mike Everman

Thanks for the article highlighting one of our local treasures, Esley Hamilton. He is one of the most gracious and knowledgeable resources in our community and has truly made a difference in hundreds of situations where citizens and bureaucrats were able to seek common ground.

sean
sean

Gracious my ass, Hamilton is nosy prick who wants to tell other people what to do with their property.

 
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