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County historian Esley Hamilton on decades of preserving local history

Esley Hamilton
Alex Heuer

After more than 40 years of working in the St. Louis region, Esley Hamilton is partially retiring from his post as a preservation historian.

Hamilton began his career in 1968 as an intern in East St. Louis. As years passed, he became a well-known preservation historian for Saint Louis County Parks and Recreation, working to save threatened historic property in the area.

For the next year, Hamilton, who is also a member of the Society of Architectural Historians St. Louis Chapter, will continue working part-time. He also plans to work on a new edition of his book, “The Past in our Presence: Historic Buildings in St. Louis County.”

Hamilton explained that it is important to preserve certain architectural structures in the area so that the history of the area is not lost with construction.

“We lose a little bit of our identity,” Hamilton said, regarding what happens when we lose a historically significant building. “We’re seeing that now with the struggle to save the Incarnate Word convent in Bel-Nor. To most people, it’s not the most important building architecturally, but to that community, it was a point of real pride.”

When it comes to constructing new buildings versus preserving and renovating old ones, Hamilton said that it is less costly to do the latter. With tax credits, developers have become more open to rehabilitating old properties.

“With the state and federal tax credits, it’s much cheaper to rehabilitate an old historic building than it is to build new,” Hamilton said. “And that’s one reason why we’ve seen so much rehabilitation in downtown St. Louis and very little new construction.”

One property that Hamilton is particularly keen about preserving is the Clemens House on the city’s north side. Developer Paul J. McKee owns the mansion, but work has yet to begin at the site.

“My background is in urban planning and I left urban planning for historic preservation because I thought we were ruining communities by clearing buildings in the naïve hope that redevelopers would come rushing in,” Hamilton explained. “We’re doing the same thing with Mr. McKee. He spent over $40 million of state funds buying up land, and he hasn’t turned one shovel as far as I know.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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