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Reflection on the retiring, but not really, Mr. Hamilton, County preservation historian

Esley Hamilton
Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio

Often the steady, sturdy and stalwart are described as bricks, those men and women who rise to the occasion when there’s a difficulty of one sort or another. Bricks are smart, determined, rigorous, tireless, scrupulous, thorough, imaginative, honest, and they don’t shy away from conflict. They are courageous. Esley Hamilton, as much as anyone I know, is a brick. Because his business has been historic preservation, standing up for threatened structures often made out of bricks, he is aptly described by that moniker.

This afternoon in Jefferson Barracks Park many of those descriptions may be mentioned by Esley Hamilton’s devoted and diverse following at his retirement party. The party goes from 3-6 p.m. at the Pavilion at Lemay in the park.

Since his arrival in 1968 (as a Model Cities intern, assigned to work in East St. Louis) until now (as the revered but retiring preservation historian for St. Louis County’s Parks and Recreation Department), he has been an informed and conscientious advocate for the built environment. Often, because we as a society are wasteful of resources such as buildings and lemming-like follow fashion rather than revering substance in architecture, he has had to do battle for the sake of history and heritage.

It’s been a roller coaster. Hamilton modestly calls his “our” biggest success the saving of White Haven, Julia Dent Grant’s childhood home, which she came to share with her husband, President Ulysses S. Grant. Officially called the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, it has everything on its 10 acre site from the Dents’ historically accurate green (not white) house to a chicken house, horse barn, ice house and kitchen house. When the property went on the market in the 1980s, Hamilton and a preservationist group called Save Grant’s White Haven got busy and did exactly that, with the help of government and civic worthies with money.

Not all victories

He also remembers the heartbreakers. One was the demolition of the fabulous Coral Court, a shiny and curvaceous no-tell tourist court that had plenty to tell about mid-century style and the culture of the automobile and restless mid-century Americans. The Coral Court was composed of art moderne bungalows on Watson Road. There an automobile-friendly architectural plan offered not only a place for a tired traveler to sleep at night but a convenient accommodation for a quickie in the afternoon. Discretion came with the room, thanks to garages attached to the cabins so one might conceal his or her ride.

A hint of what the Coral Court buildings were like, courtesy of the Museum of Transportation.
Credit Cromely | Flickr
A bungalow unit was rebuilt for display in 2000 in the Auto Exhibit at the Museum of Transportation.

The Coral Court had a seedy reputation and was notorious for having been a hideout for Carl Hall, one of two truly dreadful participants in the kidnapping in Kansas City and subsequent murder of a little boy named Bobby Greenlease, son of a rich Kansas City car dealer. The Coral Court was also extraordinary and singular. It was knocked down in 1995, but not without a lengthy and highly publicized fight, with Hamilton carrying a banner. 

A more recent loss was the glorious and perfectly useful 1963 Lewis and Clark branch of the St. Louis County Library, demolished for capricious reasons, one of which was offered by an out-of-town consulting firm that apparently left its sense of context, heritage and rightness at home in New York City. Other excuses contained in a rigid master plan that came to be regarded by officials in charge as gospel. The building was designed by the late Frederick W. Dunn, one of a group of visionary modernists and so-called gentlemen architects working in St. Louis in the mid-20th century, producing splendid and notable buildings.

Architecture, much like everything else, is a compendium of shapes, forms, light and darkness, philosophies, tastes and so forth. All that goes together to shape a style that can be comely and accompanying or derivative or pretentious or awful. These styles are transient and flow in and out of favor like millinery or in and out of existence like monarchs. The architecture that developed during the long reign of Queen Victoria came to be regarded by the less-is-more contingent as heavy, dark, weighted down by all sorts of useless ornamentation and so forth. Now we cherish its exuberance and originality and make tracks to call its houses home.

In June, Hamilton received the Secretary of the Interior's Historic Preservation Award, which is only given to one person annually.

Hamilton notes that the Edwardian-era buildings that came on the heels of the Queen had their period of distress. Now these buildings – exemplified by their eclectic presences in such areas as University Heights, Parkview, Claverach Park, Hampton Park, Webster Park and Pasadena Hills (a little known treasure in North St. Louis County) have integrity – and popularity.

Hamilton studied English as an undergraduate at Syracuse University, but like many young intellectuals in the 1960s looked with alarm at the crumbling of American city centers and their noble buildings. So he went from Syracuse to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and trained as a city planner. In East St. Louis, he worked for seven years for the LBJ-era Model Cities program, until he determined that his work for the program involved tearing down buildings rather than saving them.

Going to the county

And so in 1976, he went to Washington University, where he studied architecture history for a year, and met the late Norris Kelly Smith, one of the art and archaeology department’s most distinguished and most independent-minded professors.

While Hamilton was at Washington U, the then director of County Parks, the late Virginia Stith, called Norris Smith and asked if he knew anyone qualified to work in the historic preservation field for the county. Hamilton was recommended and joined Mrs. Stith, and worked part time at first and then full time, and then on and on for decades.

Hamilton expressed appreciation of the County’s Historic Buildings Commission, which is, he said, the oldest official preservationist body in Missouri and perhaps in the country. It was established in 1957 and survived under executive order for years. In 1983, it was established formally by ordinance.

He has taken two surveys of historic buildings in the county during his tenure, important and detailed inventories of a region’s material and architectural treasures. He said a book produced in 1970 called “100 Historic Buildings in St. Louis County” has been a foundation he has built upon since.

Although he’s to be recipient of a retirement bash this afternoon, he said he’s not truly retiring, not for now. Just as he did when county parks first employed him, he will work part time for that agency. Among his projects is a reworking of the 1996 book on historic buildings in St. Louis County, “The Past in Our Presence.”

Conflicts are part of the job

He’s not Mr. Popular universally; who can challenge The Man or the brass of a major American university without making people angry, especially when their side loses. Confrontations are essential elements in his preservationist repertory. Conflicts about value and the appropriate are not to be shied away from by any effective preservation officer and have been plentiful in his 38 years on the job.

One imagines -- one hopes -- that in retirement Hamilton’s armory of intelligence and courage will remain at the ready and will continue to provide muscle and substance to maintain his presence as a custodian of our built heritage. 

A current concern of his is almost guaranteed to bring him head to head with a most powerful adversary, the Veteran’s Administration. The VA wants part of Sylvan Springs Park for cemetery space. Sylvan Springs was set aside as parkland by the U.S. Army in 1939 and acquired in 1950 by the county. Hamilton, with characteristic directness and spunk, said taking land in Sylvan Springs doesn’t solve the VA's problem. The need for more burial space, he said, with full Hamiltonian confidence and a vein of thorough disgust, should be met another way, in another place.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.