The program did teach Hamilton one thing, though: "I decided I wanted to get into preservation. I realized that was a better way to preserve cities. Some of the biggest problems come from jumping on the urban-renewal bandwagon. They clear the neighborhoods, and the central business district is an island.

"In St. Louis, Mill Creek Valley, which ran from 20th Street to Grand Boulevard, was the largest urban-renewal project," he goes on. "It was rat infested and lacked sanitation, but most of the buildings looked like the ones in Lafayette Square. If the same money used to tear down Mill Creek Valley had been given to the homeowners to upgrade, it would have been cheaper, and we would have a viable neighborhood."

He had been interested in historic buildings ever since he was fifteen and read Talbot Hamlin's biography of Benjamin Latrobe, known as the father of American architecture. Most of Latrobe's work was in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — easy visiting distance from the Maryland suburbs where Hamilton grew up.

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 the 1970s Hamilton began a master's program in architectural history at Washington University but left to take the job with the county. On days off he'd travel to Hannibal to create a catalog of the historic buildings, a project that took him six years.

In 1980 Hamilton collaborated with his old boss Mendelson on a monograph called Community Harmony that laid out his idea of preservation: that old buildings ought to be reused, repurposed — anything to avoid being razed. "Many new buildings," says Hamilton, "are inferior to the ones being torn down."

Hamilton insists that his position in the county bureaucracy does not grant him any power to save buildings, though it does put him in close proximity to others who do have the authority to save buildings.

"Esley referred me to the heads of different groups," remembers Ken Aston, who sought Hamilton's help to create a historic district on Henry Avenue in Manchester. "School district people, heads of historical societies, certain elected officials who were enthusiastic about historic preservation. That's a lot of people. And he attended all the public hearings and meetings for grass-roots efforts."

"People aren't afraid to speak to me," Hamilton says. "People know who I am, but not because I'm an authority figure. I've always felt that since the county didn't have legal authority to regulate historic buildings, it shows we care if I show up."

Hamilton will be eligible to retire in March 2011, when he turns 66. "Maybe I'll cut back a little. Travel and read and finish all the books I've started."

Retirement may come at a convenient juncture in his study of St. Louis architecture. "Starting in the mid-'70s there was a big drop-off of architecture in St. Louis. It was nothing like the numbers in the '50s and '60s. And there were so many bad buildings. I was joking the other day, I'm thankful I won't ever have to evaluate mega mansions."

Hamilton pauses to leaf through a copy of Community Harmony lying on his dining-room table. "There's a joke in this monograph. Almost all the buildings in it got torn down."

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