Photographs by Katherine Bish
To local historic preservationists, it was the equivalent of a tremor along the New Madrid Fault—not the Big One, not even as serious as last year’s demolition of the Modernist May-Lichtenstein House on Warson Road, but a natural disaster nonetheless. A stone-turreted University City home, built in 1904 by renowned architect Herbert C. Chivers and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, had been engulfed in flames at dawn on February 1.
By midmorning, another small firestorm had erupted, this one in the tiny Clayton office of St. Louis County historic preservationist Esley Hamilton—ground zero for anyone concerned about a local landmark.
Within hours, Hamilton—a normally genial, scholarly sort whose ire is ignited whenever a significant structure is threatened—had responded to a flurry of e-mails and phone conversations, trying to determine the best way to rescue a piece of St. Louis’ past. Then he sat down at his computer, pushed his owlish glasses up his nose and dashed off a letter to the home’s owner, advising her that the house, vacant for four years, was eligible for tax credits for restoration. Next he contacted University City’s city manager, director of planning and various City Council members to determine the legal options. Finally, he arranged for a county Historic Buildings Commission member to attend a condemnation hearing to publicly restate the importance and financial feasibility of saving the house.
For days afterward, Hamilton, a familiar figure in his frumpy tweed sport coats, continued to be peppered with questions about the home’s fate, whether he was lecturing on area historic buildings at a Brentwood church or attending a concert at Powell Symphony Hall. It’s the natural consequence of Hamilton’s lifestyle; for him, there is very little distinction between professional and personal time. For more than a quarter-century, he has dedicated his life to keeping the tangible past in our collective presence.
Unlike the architectural gems he fights daily to protect, however, Hamilton is not a native St. Louis treasure. Born in Baltimore on March 25, 1945, the only child of Joseph and Ada Hamilton was given a Biblical name (in Hebrew, esli means “near to me”) and a profound appreciation of history.
Hamilton’s father, an estimator for an air-craft manufacturer, and mother, an elemen-tary-school teacher, moved to Hagerstown, Md., and Muskegon, Mich., before settling in the Washington, D.C., area when Esley was in high school. The Hamiltons made a point of taking their son on educational trips—to Civil War battlefields, national parks and the World’s Fair in Seattle—instead of beach vacations. He fondly recalls an excursion to St. Louis to see the Gateway Arch while it was under construction.
Hamilton graduated from Syracuse University in 1967 with a degree in English literature after studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Florence, Italy. Next he headed to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study urban planning. It was that pursuit that first led Hamilton to the St. Louis area, as a summer intern in East St. Louis for Model Cities, a federally funded program to rehabilitate America’s downtowns.
Thank the Vietnam War for depositing Esley Hamilton permanently on St. Louis soil. When he received an induction notice in 1969, Hamilton secured a deferment as a full-time employee with Model Cities, where he worked until 1976 under well-known St. Louis architect Jamie Cannon, then director of planning in East St. Louis. Hamilton enrolled briefly in an art-history program at Washington University, then became a consultant to the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission, an advisory body to the St. Louis County Council charged with surveying local landmarks.
In 1980, Hamilton was appointed full-time county historian and preservationist, a position in the St. Louis County Parks Department, and began an in-depth inventory of county structures. By 1988, he had completed the task, rating more than 200 properties—everything from Kirkwood’s Missouri Pacific station and Concordia Seminary in Clayton to the Airway Drive-In sign in St. Ann—significant for their architectural quality and historical associations.
Hamilton has held his position with the county for more than two decades, preparing countless nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, guiding the formation of several local historical societies and collaborating on local book projects. He gives about 75 lectures a year, not only on local subjects of interest but also on, say, English country gardens or the churches of colonial America. He is in constant demand as a guide for walking and bus tours.
That’s because Hamilton has an uncanny ability to remember just about everything about anything. In high school, this led to his selection as one of the teenage hosts of an NBC-TV quiz show, Youth Wants to Know. As a historic preservationist, it has led to his nickname, “the answer man.”
“If there is any question about any building, place or piece of county history, Esley is the first one to be called,” says Jane Gleason, chair of the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission. “He’s a fount of information.”
Hamilton’s usual modus operandi is behind the scenes; he was once described as the “ultimate wheel-greaser.” Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s historic treasures, he can excavate just the right facts and figures to persuade bureaucrats, who are often under pressure from developers, to consider the preservationist point of view. He played a key role in saving and restoring White Haven, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, in Grantwood Village; the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park; and the Faust Historic Village.
In February 2005, Gov. Matt Blunt presented Hamilton with the prestigious Elizabeth and George Rozier Award, given by the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation. In October, he received the William Barnaby Faherty Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Historical Society of St. Louis County. In December, the St. Louis Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects bestowed its Civic Stewardship Award upon him.
For Hamilton, a man who rarely seeks the spotlight except to publicize a preservationist cause, the center-stage attention has been a bit unsettling. “It’s rather scary. I’m worried that everyone must think I’m about to retire,” he says with a laugh—though, at 61, he has no such plans.
That’s a relief, because one thing most local historic preservationists can agree on is that Esley Hamilton is as irreplaceable here as, say, Washington University’s Francis Field Gates or University City’s octagonal 135-foot-tall Beaux Art City Hall. During individual battles to save significant structures from the wrecking ball, Hamilton shows an uncanny resourcefulness—and it moves mountains.
Take his eight-year battle, waged alongside Hazelwood preservationists, to save the Utz-Tesson house, a 1782 partial log home located in the midst of a new development, Tesson Park Estates. Going beyond his usual arsenal of letter-writing campaigns and ads in national preservation publications, Hamilton decided to create and publicize a list of the county’s most endangered sites—with Utz-Tesson at the top—to pressure developers to move the house to Brookes Park (which they did, in 2003).
Shortly thereafter, Hamilton came to the rescue of Richmond Heights preservationists trying to persuade the Missouri Department of Transportation to change the path of a rebuilt Highway 40 to spare three 1950s-era ranch homes on Bennett Avenue—the first enclave of African-American professionals in post–World War II St. Louis County. This time, Hamilton assigned graduate students in his Washington University landscape-architecture class to trace property titles on the street, qualifying the area for National Register status on the basis of civil-rights history and thereby convincing MoDOT officials to rethink the route.
In 1999, Hamilton persuaded Maplewood politicians not to replace an old Art Deco stone pool building with a service road to the city’s new aquatic center. Then he began working tirelessly with Maplewood preservationists to secure and restore Woodside, the community’s oldest home. “Esley shows up for City Council meetings, design review–board meetings—anything that requires an expert,” says Doug Houser, vice president of the Maplewood Historic Preservation Corp. The man’s a force to be reckoned with, adds Houser: “A few years ago, Woodside was sold to a church group that had applied for a demolition permit. When Esley came to the meeting to protest, someone questioned his credentials. He stood up, pulled out his wallet and said, ‘How much time do you have?’”
Not even Hamilton has a perfect record in historic preservation, though. Among his biggest disappointments? The 1995 destruction of historic Route 66’s Coral Court Motel, which he considered “the finest example of commercial Streamline Moderne architecture in the Midwest.” The ultimate cause of its demise—the lack of a local historic-preservation ordinance—is one of Hamilton’s biggest beefs. “We can nominate all kinds of structures for the National Register, but only 14 county municipalities have legislation in place to preserve historic buildings,” he says.
Hamilton constantly updates his list of endangered sites, tracking development plans that threaten irreplaceable structures and speaking out publicly in protest. On a recent short list: Washington University’s Prince Hall, which, despite National Register status, was demolished; the Arban House in Crestwood, built around 1848 and a rare example of the Carpenter Gothic style; and the Henry Hampton House in Richmond Heights, an early modern house designed in 1941 by Harris Armstrong for a prominent African-American physician and civic leader. Long-term worries include Wildwood’s Pond Hotel, the Spanish Lake Blacksmith Shop and the International Style Shanley Building in downtown Clayton.
Recognizing that historic preservationists must also be pragmatists, Hamilton champions adaptive reuse, pointing to structures such as Ballwin’s Barn at Lucerne, a distinctive 1906 dairy structure that now houses St. Louis Community College classrooms; Normandy’s magnificent French castle, the old St. Vincent’s psychiatric hospital, now the Castle Park Apartments; and University City’s B’nai Amoona Synagogue, designed by acclaimed architect Eric Mendelsohn and now the home of the Center of Contemporary Arts, as successful transformations.
Single-minded as he may appear when it comes to historic preservation, Hamilton has friends and colleagues marveling at his eclectic interests and unusual personality. Limited to a one-word description, he might best be characterized as curious—both in the sense of being a bit eccentric and incredibly inquisitive.
In a high-tech, media-crazed society, Hamilton owns no television, no DVD or CD player, no home computer, no cell phone. He drives a late-model Chrysler that belonged to his father, now a widower living in a Washington, D.C., retirement center. (They talk every Saturday at 8:30 a.m.sharp.) And though Hamilton’s social calendar is filled months in advance, he lives alone, in a University City duplex furnished mainly with books.
“Esley is one of the least materialistic people I know,” says Robert Burns, a close friend and executive editor of the Jesuit Bulletin. “I can’t imagine ever running into him at the mall. I think the blandishments of consumer culture are totally off his radar.”
Other aspects of contemporary life seem to elude Hamilton as well. According to Mary Jo and Jamie Cannon, who regard him as their surrogate son, he knows nothing about sports—to the point that he is unaware of the World Series even when the Cardinals are playing in it. Yet he is an avid newspaper reader, regularly firing off letters to the editor. And though it would never occur to Hamilton to exercise at a gym, he happily conducts three-hour hikes through neighborhoods such as Hampton Park in Richmond Heights, which was recently added to the National Register mainly through his efforts.
But Hamilton is no Luddite when it comes to either computer usage—he uses e-mail and Internet research extensively—or popular culture. Though unlikely to attend a summer blockbuster, he is a huge Greta Garbo fan and an avid movie buff whose tastes run to Robert Altman, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese films. He’s been known to happily spend evenings with friends watching a season’s worth of Sex and the City or Seinfeld episodes on DVD. And he has a standing date to view the Academy Awards at the Cannons’ home.
“The main reason I don’t have a television or computer at home is that I have an addictive personality,” Hamilton says with an apologetic grin. “I’m afraid I would never get anything done.”
Given his wide range of interests, he has precious little time to waste. Passionate about music, he is an accomplished tenor, a member of the First Unitarian Church choir and a former longtime member of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus. He also attends Saint Louis Symphony concerts weekly, enjoys Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and thinks nothing of making a weekend trip to Chicago to see the Lyric Opera. A theater aficionado as well, he is a regular at the Muny, Stages, the Black Rep and the Fox. Other interests include English literature, U.S. presidential homes, the great American songbook, stained glass ... and anything that has to do with architecture.
“When Esley goes somewhere, he goes to learn. Before he went to see Walk the Line, for instance, he made sure he knew all of Johnny Cash’s songs,” says Jamie Cannon. “He’s a true Renaissance man.”
Hamilton’s many interests are key to his vast social network. “Wherever Esley travels, he never pays a hotel bill—he always seems to have friends to stay with,” says Mary Jo Cannon. And although his free spirit and scholarly lifestyle have confirmed his bachelorhood, they also make him charming company, she adds. “I don’t believe Esley has ever had time for a wife, but he’s definitely someone you want at a dinner party or on a trivia-contest team.”
Hamilton’s primary passion—historic preservation—is anything but a trivial pursuit. It is his very essence, his raison d’être, says Burns. “What Esley cares most about is how people inhabit their world and how their lives may be richer if they reflect upon how they use, create and re-create their habitats. He believes what people do in this regard affects how they relate to their history, how they exist together in the present and how they determine the kind of future they will have."