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A St. Louis Treasure Retires (Sort Of)

Esley Hamilton has been this area's leading figure in historic preservation for 38 years

Esley Hamilton in front of White Haven, the family home of Julia Dent Grant, wife of President Ulysses S. Grant. White Haven was not only saved from demolition, but the property is now a National Historic Site. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
July 15, 2015
Esley Hamilton is the "answer man" — the go-to guy when it comes to knowledge about the many facets of historic preservation.

The "answer man" has earned his title. For 38 years he has served as preservation historian for the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department.

Hamilton, a resident of University City, retired as preservation historian after adding eight districts and 30 individual properties to the National Register of Historic Places and giving countless speeches about the importance of our historic homes and towns.

Hamilton handed over the reins to his successor, Daniel Gonzales, but is staying on as a part-time historian to help Gonzales make the transition.

"Everything I'll be doing now is to help Danny Gonzales get his feet on the ground, but he's really in charge." Hamilton said.

From Planning To Preservation

Hamilton received his undergraduate degree in English literature from Syracuse University then attended University of Wisconsin in Madison for his graduate degree in urban and regional planning. He attended Washington University in 1976 to study architecture to further his career.

"I just decided that historic preservation was a much better way to preserve communities," Hamilton said. "I thought, well, to really get into this I need to do more studying of architectural history so I enrolled at Washington University School of Architecture, actually, Art and Archeology department."

Less than a year later, Hamilton received a call from the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department. Hamilton started with the department in 1977 under contract as a consultant, and then in 1980 he was added to the payroll as a preservation historian. Since then he has been part of numerous plans to help preserve St. Louis County.

He is most proud of his work helping to preserve White Haven, which is now part of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in South St. Louis County, across Pardee Road from Grant's Farm.

"I think that working on saving White Haven was one of the most important things we did while I was here," Hamilton said. "It brings people from all over the country. There are a lot of people that specifically want to see national historic sites."

"I couldn't have imagined that I would have had a more perfect job." Esley Hamilton photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
In addition to White Haven, Hamilton helped establish Tower Grove Park, Christ Church Cathedral and the Hilltop Campus at Washington University (now the Danforth campus) as National Historic Landmarks.

In 2014, Hamilton was one of four professionals to be honored in Washington, D.C., at the Secretary of the Interior Historic Preservation Awards ceremony. He won in the certified local government category due to his efforts preserving and educating about the historic sites St. Louis County has to offer.

Norma Maret Bolin was the guiding force behind Hamilton's nomination.

"For me it was a thank you for everything he's done for St. Louis," said Bolin, a historic preservation commission member. "He deserved it, but I knew there was going to be a lot of competition because it was a nationwide competition. It was great because now that he's retiring, for him to go out with that national award under his belt, the individual recognition, it's amazing."

At first, Hamilton did not think much of the award and the process to get there. Bolin had asked him to send her his resume and she even got nine other certified local governments in St. Louis County to join in and send letters of support for Hamilton. When Bolin received word that Hamilton had won, and called to let him know, Hamilton had a different take on the honor.

"When she first told me I won I assumed there were 50 awards," Hamilton said. "I thought there was one for every state."

Looking back on the transition from an English literature major to urban and regional planning graduate degree, Hamilton believes he lucked out.

"I was extremely fortunate," he said. "This was my goal when I decided to change careers but I couldn't have imagined that I would have had a more perfect job."

Moving Forward

It is a sense of humor and determination like Hamilton's that made finding the next preservation historian for St. Louis County such a struggle. Of 160 applicants, one stood out – an applicant who didn't even think about applying for the job in the first place.

Daniel Gonzales was working as a museum curator for St. Louis County when he applied for the position.

"I hadn't considered it prior only because, how could you consider taking over for somebody like Esley?" Gonzales said. "You'd have to be a little bit crazy. It took a little bit of convincing to get me to apply but I'm glad that I did, and I'm excited to get started."

Gonzales came to St. Louis to study history in graduate school. In 2009 he joined the University of Missouri-St. Louis museum studies program, which landed him a job with the Missouri History Museum after graduating.

"It's very humbling to have been chosen and daunting to think about the shoes that I'm expected to fill," Gonzales said. "People have been saying 'oh, you're the new Esley.' And every time they do it I'm like 'no I'm not, no one is going to be the new Esley, ever.'"

Hamilton is ready to take time to travel the world and visit friends around the country. A trip planned for this month will take him to England and Scotland.

He will still be editing the newsletter for the Society of Architectural Historians, helping develop an updated book about historic sites in St. Louis County and helping Gonzales make the transition. But he will also be taking time to enjoy retired life, if anyone can get him out of the office.

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