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

Oct 14, 2009 at 4:00 am

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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."