Locked up, abandoned and forgotten, the vacant six-flat standing at the northeast corner of 57th and Maryland has no plaques or statues and few clues to its history.
Now, the little-known childhood home of Ronald Reagan in Hyde Park could soon be torn down by the University of Chicago, which has quietly plotted its demolition, the Sun-Times has learned.
The plan has made unlikely allies of conservatives who consider Reagan an icon and liberal Hyde Parkers who say the university’s secrecy is typical of how it has treated its neighbors for decades.
It puts the school that provided the intellectual force behind “Reaganomics” in the awkward spot of attempting to destroy what was until the election of Barack Obama the only home in Chicago where a president has lived.
In fact, the university’s controversial new Milton Friedman Institute — named in tribute to the architect of Reagan’s free market policies — is just a few blocks away from the former Reagan home.
Though Reagan — born 100 years ago Sunday — spent just a year at the home as a 3-to-4 year-old from 1914 to 1915 and most of his youth in western Illinois, he wrote fondly of the gas-lit first-floor apartment at 832 E. 57th St.
In a 1988 letter, he described watching horse-drawn firefighters “come down the street at full gallop . . . the sight made me decide I wanted to be a fireman.” He described surviving a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, playing with a neighbor’s set of lead soldiers, how his older brother was run over by a beer wagon and how they both panicked while his parents went out for groceries, left the house and got lost across the Midway.
University officials, who bought Reagan’s home in 2004 and ordered tenants out a year ago, refuse to publicly discuss their plans for the building or the surrounding area. Spokesman Jeremy Manier said the university has “no announcements to make.”
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) — whose ward includes the Reagan home — also says she is unaware of any demolition plans and that the school has improved its communication with residents.
But sources inside and outside the university versed in its real estate policy say it is in private talks to demolish the home, and that the university has long considered buying up and razing the entire block and the block to the east as essential to hospital expansion. The $700 million, 10-story Hospital Pavilion, due to open in 2013, already looms over Reagan’s home across 57th Street.
Records show the university spent millions buying at least 60 percent of the two blocks over the last 20 years, with most purchased since 2000 now standing vacant. It already owns blocks to the immediate north, south and east, while Washington Park blocks westward expansion. A university source said at least some officials have known of the Reagan connection for years.
Frank Grabowski, who sold the Reagan building to the university but kept the mantel for his own Bloomingdale home, said the official he dealt with knew Reagan had lived there, but “wasn’t concerned and wanted to pull it down.”
Offering a possible motive for the university’s silence, he quipped, “I didn’t want too many people to know the history: It would have made headaches for me as owner.”
Those headaches include dealing with Hyde Park conservationists, who say the home has architectural merit.
Hyde Park Historical Society board member Jack Spicer, also the president of all-volunteer Preservation Chicago, said the Reagan six-flat — just a mile south of President Obama’s Kenwood home — is the finest remaining example of what was once a solid working and middle-class black neighborhood. Destroying it would create “a medical canyon” that separates the hospital from the city and risks deepening long-standing wounds in university-resident relations, he said.
“Whatever you think of Reagan — once the building’s gone, it’s gone forever,” he added.
Landmarks Illinois president Jim Peters also said that he would like to see the block preserved. Reagan’s home is protected by a zoning giving critics 90 days to object if and when the university announces a plan to destroy it, he said.
Further headaches could come from conservatives keen to name everything from aircraft carriers to schools in Reagan’s honor.
State Rep. Jerry Mitchell (R-Sterling), who chairs the Illinois Reagan Centenary Commission and hosted GOP grandees including former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a Reagan celebration downstate this past week, said destroying the home would be “a big mistake — if they renovated and advertised it, the university might make more money than they expect.”
Former Gov. Jim Thompson said the existence of better-known Reagan homes downstate and in California made it harder to save the Hyde Park address. But he said that the university should consider naming the site in Reagan’s honor, and that in the meantime, “It would be easy to put a plaque up — Reagan was the grandfather of the nation while he was president.”
Ironically, if Reagan’s father had not enjoyed his booze a little too much, the home’s presidential history might have been lost long ago.
Park Ridge resident Tom Roeser, 82, discovered the link in the early 1980s when he pressed Reagan for details of the home during a visit to the White House. Reagan couldn’t remember the address, but passed on a message: “My father was picked up often as a common drunk — the police records should have that fact.”
Records confirmed that John E. Reagan was arrested by Chicago Police for drunkenness in 1915, giving the 57th Street address, said Roeser, a former op-ed columnist for the Sun-Times and a former Quaker Oats vice president.
“When I went to the building and asked the man who answered the door whether he realized he was living in the president’s ancestral home, he slammed the door in my face,” Roeser recalled with a laugh. But he added of Reagan, “For such a powerful man to be so open about his father’s drinking really says something about how secure he was in himself.
“Tearing that building down would be a tragedy.”