All of Ronald Reagan’s formative years, from birth until he landed his first job across the Mississippi 21 years later, were lived in rural northwestern Illinois except for about ten months in Chicago.
In all but one case, his rural boyhood homes have been preserved. His birthplace in Tampico looks as it did when he was born and is open to the public. So is his teen years home in Dixon. The house the Reagans lived in for two years in Galesburg has been lovingly restored by its private owner. Their house in Monmouth is the only home that is closed.
Reagan’s father, Jack, a shoe salesmen by trade, moved the family from Tampico at the beginning of 1915 after his boss in Tampico sold his dry goods store. He got a job at the big Fair Store on Chicago’s south side, thinking his career would take off there. They rented a cold-water flat in a four-story apartment building at 832 East 57th Street in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Young “Dutch” Reagan (that was his nickname from birth until he moved to Hollywood in 1937) had his first memories in that flat. In a letter years later, he writes about the thrill of seeing horses pulling the fire wagon down the street at a gallop. February 6 that year marked his fourth birthday. While living in Chicago he also nearly died from a serious case of pneumonia.
The building the Reagans lived in is about to be demolished. The land now belongs to the University of Chicago’s Medical Center and the plan is to replace it with a grassy strip bordering what will be a new parking lot.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks turned down an appeal to give the building landmark status on the grounds that it “does not have sufficient architectural significance” and “is not associated with Mr. Reagan during his active and productive years.” As to the first reason, the building is a good example of vernacular architecture of the era. As to the second, this site, along with all the other places the 40th president lived in as a boy, figured in the development of his character (his political philosophy came later) and thus is important to understanding this very significant president.
Redd Griffin, a Chicagoan who understood the significance of this building in the life of Reagan and was working energetically at saving it, died unexpectedly in late November. Now, Mary Claire Kendall, a writer, is picking up Griffin’s cause and working to raise enough money to propose that a non-profit group purchase the building from the university and turn it into a Ronald Reagan Hyde Park museum and public affairs center.
Ms. Kendall first became interested in the cause when she was doing research on a book about Frank Lloyd Wright and met Griffin, who was active in the movement to preserve and promote several Wright homes in the Chicago suburbs. About her efforts to raise money for the Reagan Hyde Park preservation project, she says, “Time is of the essence.” The demolition is scheduled to take place by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, while the university is more-or-less ignoring the Reagan home preservation effort, it is actively lobbying for an Obama Presidential Library. President Obama’s own home is in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Chicago politics being what they are, the betting is on that project and not saving the cold-water flat apartment building in which the only U.S. president born and bred in Illinois lived during his boyhood.