Historic properties harbor stories, secrets and surprises, and if you’ve ever want to know more about a cool old house in one of St. Louis’ many historic neighborhoods, you could always ‘Google’ the address and have 52,000 results in milliseconds.
Or, you could ask Esley Hamilton and get the single right answer, immediately.
In his role as preservation historian for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation, Hamilton surveys historic buildings for consideration on the National Register of Historic Places. But it is his role in saving St. Louis history that has made him a recognizable force with urban planners and city councils for more than 30 years. Hamilton’s well-documented successes include an eight-year effort to save the Utz Tesson house (built in 1782 and threatened by development) and, perhaps most famously, the re-routing of Highway 40 around small brick bungalows in Richmond Heights because they represent a significant time in the Civil Rights movement.
A place on the National Register is often misunderstood, Hamilton says. “The Register is an honor roll of historic buildings, operated by the National Parks Service,” he explains. “What most people don’t realize is that the Parks Service has no authority to keep those buildings from being altered or torn down—only a local preservation ordinance can do that. That’s why it’s so critical, if a community is concerned about its heritage, to have a local historic preservation (HP) ordinance.”
For instance, although it was discussed after Busch’s Grove was razed, the city of Ladue does not have an HP ordinance. “That’s just incredible to me because Ladue has so many major works of architecture, like Churchill School (the old Price School building), and the Czufin house by William Bernoudy, which are both on the National Register,” Hamilton says. “People tend to say We don’t need that because people are aware of their heritage, and they WANT to preserve these things—we don’t need government interfering. But the point is, you don’t need it for the people who care—you need it for the people who don’t care.”
Not surprisingly, Hamilton has some favorite Ladue houses and he knows them by name. “One of my favorites is ‘Amagraja’ on Price Road. It’s one of the few houses remaining in St. Louis that reflects the style of the World’s Fair,” he says. “Some of the materials from the fair’s structures were later reused, and the distinctive columns from the fair’s Georgia building may have been incorporated into Amagraja. There are only a handful of these Renaissance designs, so I consider this to be of statewide significance.”
Although the 1950s are not often recognized as a significant period in architectural history, Hamilton says St. Louis has many fine examples of what has been described as mid-century modern. “The ‘50s were a great period in our architecture, but the children of the people who built it, hate it. That happens in every generation, because styles are cyclical. But then the next generation sees things with fresher eyes, and appreciation starts to grow.”
Hamilton says the mid-century work of St. Louis native William Bernoudy, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, is particularly popular. “There was a tour last year of Bernoudy homes—many of them in Ladue—and it was sold out, because there’s a tremendous amount of interest in his work.” Real estate agents have taken note of the buzz, says Hamilton, and will incorporate the phrase ‘Bernoudy house’ into a for-sale description, but the significance is not always appreciated. “I saw one ad that read beautiful Bernoudy house—restore or tear down.”
Hopefully that Bernoudy gem will not suffer the same fate as Busch’s Grove.