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Esley Hamilton: The historian of historic preservation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2011 - At tonight's Landmark's Preservation Week reception, Esley Hamilton will become only the second person to receive the H. Meade Summers Award.

The Landmarks Association of St. Louis is recognizing that, for a third of a century, Hamilton has been the region's most prominent and energetic preservation historian. Because of his nominations, 30 individual sites and eight historic districts have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. And he has helped others from Hannibal and Clarksville to Tower Grove Park get national designations for treasured districts and buildings.

Some of his work comes through his "day job" as preservation historian at St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation, where he started as a consultant in 1977. Others come from his own passion. He gives more than 70 lectures a year, usually to filled rooms, and some walking tours. In his "free" time Hamilton has written more than 150 magazine and newspaper articles, book forewords, and pamphlets.

For two decades, he has taught grad students at Washington University School of Architecture: "Historic Preservation & Urban Design" and "History of Landscape Architecture."

He came into preservation through the back door because in the 1970s there were few front doors. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1967, he got a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin. He moved here to work as an urban planner in East St. Louis. At night he did graduate work in architectural history at Washington University.

He urges preservationists to get involved in their communities and has walked his talk. A longtime University City resident, Hamilton's volunteer efforts include serving on, chairing or being president of the University City Planning Commission, the U. City Historic Preservation Commission and the U. City Historical Society.

Music is another of his passions. He sang in the St. Louis Chamber Chorus and in choirs at three area houses of worship, often as tenor soloist.

He says he'd planned to be retired from the County Parks by now but has too many commitments and concerns.

We talked with Hamilton recently about the state of architectural preservations. The comments have been edited for clarity and length.

What changes have you seen in St. Louisans attitudes about historic preservation since the late 1970s?

Hamilton: Because of the march of time, mid-century modern architecture is now considered an important part of our heritage. After the tornado damaged Lambert, the New York Times had a picture of the building with its architect, Gyo Obata, showing that it was architecturally significant.

Young people especially are very interested in buildings constructed between 70 and 50 years ago right up until about 1970s. We have not had so many significant buildings here since the 1970s. We, with my wonderful intern Catie Myers, just did a study of 400 St. Louis County churches built between 1940 and the 1970s. We found at least 100 were architecturally valuable. And not just their architecture, but their stained glass, their art and their sculpture.

When I started, mostly we were preserving what was built before the Civil War. Now we have a much wider sense of what is important.

The second biggest change is the attitude of business leaders. It's changed 180 degrees because of the federal tax credits for historic preservation, begun in 1975; then, the Missouri state credits, begun in 1998. With tax credits people have been more willing to invest in historic buildings. And because standards they have to follow to get the credit are more sensitive and precise, the preservation is done well.

Another change: There is more information today about historic preservation in St. Louis. When I first moved to St. Louis, just one new book was available on historic buildings, written by Elinor Coyle. She was a pioneer and deserves credit. The most recent book before hers was John Albury Bryan's 1928 AIA "Missouri's Contribution to American Architecture." It was mostly pictures.

Since the 1970s, many books have been published about St. Louis architecture.

In recent years, the little St. Louis chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians has published original research online at stlouisarchitecture.org, so the public could read what is being studied.

St. Louis architecture is still generally unknown nationally. People come here all the time and say, "Wow, nobody told us how great the architecture was in St. Louis."

There is no other city in the country that has turn-of-the-century houses like we do in the private streets. None.

What risks do you see to architectural preservation in the St. Louis region?

Hamilton: The main risk is lack of appreciation. Once there is appreciation for a significant building, people are willing to spend money to keep it standing.

The other risk is the idea that government regulations for historic buildings are somehow un-American.

After Busch's Grove in Ladue was destroyed (replaced by a masonry building with a white siding reproduction of Busch's original 19th century facade) the then-mayor asked a committee to look into a historic preservation ordinance. The committee told the mayor that Ladue does not need such an ordinance. Their assumption, of course, was that everyone does the right thing in Ladue.

It is true many residents are sensitive. But you don't have preservation regulations for them. You have them for the others. (In the 1970s) the endangered buildings were in poor neighborhoods where people could not afford to keep them up. Now endangered buildings are often in rich neighborhoods where people have money to tear down significant buildings and put up bigger ones.

Washington University tore down a building listed as a National Historic Landmark, the highest architectural designation in the nation -- Prince Hall. The only thing a National Landmark is protected from is having federal funds used to tear it down. People are always telling me they think National Landmarks are protected. That's wrong. Local governments are the only ones who can protect buildings from being destroyed.

Clayton passed a very complicated architectural preservation ordinance. Each Clayton neighborhood association is responsible for coming up with its own regulations. None has.

You teach architectural history to grad students at Washington U. Are enough architects interested and trained in historic preservation?

Hamilton: They don't learn much about how to preserve in architecture school. They mostly learn in practice. Now it is cheaper to rehab a historical building than to build a new building. There are more architects skilled in it here than there used to be.

Many Washington U. architectural grad students are very interested. I have a limit on how many can take the class. Most years we have more than (capacity) who want to take it.

There is a need to appreciate the traditional architecture of the early 20th century, like those wonderful period revival houses on Forsyth and Wydown. In the 19th century architecture, we don't demand that, to be significant, a building's architecture has to point toward future design.

What about construction companies, craftsmen and artisans? Are enough enthusiastic about preservation?

Hamilton: It used to be said that architects had to build in modern design because craftsman were not available to do more detailed work in traditional design. That is just not true. Even in new construction, in the mega-mansions, they use lots of classic woodworking and iron craftsmanship.

Americans under the age of 40 generally are excellent recyclers. Do you help them see that preservation is recycling and keeps used building materials out of landfills?

Hamilton: When people ask me why we should save old building nowadays, the first thing I say is that they embody energy. To tear them down is a great waste of resources.

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.