"I'm very protective of him," says his friend Mae Wheeler, a local jazz singer. "He's a loner. He stays busy and overworks. I kind of mother and scold him a bit."

For someone who professes to be quite shy, though, Hamilton can be remarkably gregarious. "I went to Powell Hall recently with my friend Bob Burns," he recalls. "We sat in the first row, on the aisle, and almost every other group that came through, I knew somebody. Bob said we should sit there all the time, and I could hold court."

Hamilton maintains a hectic cultural schedule. He sings in the choir at the First Unitarian Church in the Central West End ("Tenor, can't you tell?") and used to perform with the St. Louis Chamber Chorus. He still writes program notes on the buildings where the chorus performs.

He has a large collection of records — mostly classical — but he rarely listens to them, preferring to go to the opera or hear the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall. His favorite compositions range from Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, but he says, "I know nothing about popular bands." (While leading a tour of Tower Grove Park, he appears hard-pressed to cite a modern equivalent to the busts of nineteenth-century composers that surround the music pavilion and finally offers Bob Dylan.)

"Esley is the only person I know who will fly to Cleveland for the sole purpose of seeing an opera in Japanese," says Jamie Cannon, an architect and friend of Hamilton's for 40 years.

Hamilton became interested in film as a grad student at the University of Wisconsin, where, he says, there were twenty film societies. His favorite director is Robert Altman. "He has so much going on in his best movies. He's quite deep. He understands human nature."

Three times Hamilton has seen Altman's Gosford Park, whose setting is an English country estate. English country houses happen to be one of his architectural obsessions. All told, he has visited England ten times and has made an extensive study of the country's gardens, but he has also traveled as far as New Zealand. He has made a point to see all of the architect Louis Kahn's buildings except the ones in India and Bangladesh.

Observes Cannon: "He spends all the money he makes on plane tickets. He travels all over the world, and he never has to stay in a hotel. There's always a good friend who insists he stay with them."

"It's true," Hamilton agrees. "It's a joke at the National Association for Olmsted Parks that in all the years I've been attending the convention, I've only once had to stay in a hotel."

Hamilton recently spent a week in the Netherlands. "I had eight days to see the whole country, except for Utrecht," he remembers. "It has the only cathedral in the Low Countries, and I was afraid someone would say, 'You missed the cathedral?' I always live in fear that I've missed the best part."


A mixture of idealism and expediency brought Hamilton to St. Louis in 1969. He was originally interested in urban renewal. The previous summer, while still a student in urban planning at Wisconsin, he'd interned for the Model Cities project in East St. Louis. Model Cities was a federal program meant to clean up city neighborhoods; the East St. Louis team had to contend with areas that were still in shambles from the 1917 race riots.

"One week after Esley got to St. Louis," recounts Bob Mendelson, a professor of architecture at Southern Illinois University who headed the East St. Louis Model Cities project, "I realized, 'This kid knows more than I do.' He understood the concept of what a neighborhood is about, the need to get a certain density to become urban, the density needed to support public transit. He understood compliance with regulations was part of the game. He got it."

Soon after Hamilton returned to Wisconsin, the government eliminated the grad-student deferment and he was drafted. "It would have been such a disaster if Esley had had to go to war," says Mary Jo Cannon, Jamie's wife. "He's not the warring type."

Hamilton called up Model Cities in East St. Louis and asked for a full-time job, though he hedged his bets by applying to the Peace Corps. "I appealed to my draft board in Maryland," Hamilton recalls. "It was just after the Silver Spring riots. I explained I wanted to work in East St. Louis. They decided it was a risky job and gave me a deferment. I was lucky. Another draft board might not have seen it the same way."

"Esley lived at 15th and Missouri," remembers Cannon, who was then director of planning for East St. Louis, "half a block from a liquor store where there were more murders that year than in the entire city of London. Esley didn't have a car. I would drive him home — I'd insist — and slowly drive up, and he'd jump out."

Model Cities suffered from a severe lack of funding and shut down in 1974. "A lot of the neighborhoods we had to work with, there was nothing there at all," notes Hamilton. "The people had all gone to eastern East St. Louis or Belleville or Fairview Heights."

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7 comments
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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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