Mary Claire Kendall and Nicholas Hahn III: Save the Chicago home of Ronald Reagan
BY MARY CLAIRE KENDALL AND NICHOLAS HAHN III March 22, 2013 9:46PM
Ronald Reagan lived in the first floor (above street level) apartment at 832 E. 57th st. in 1915. Now the University of Chicago wants to demolish it. Photographed Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: April 24, 2013 6:11AM
The only Chicago home of the only president born and bred in Illinois is poised for demolition when the city’s 90-day administrative hold expires on Wednesday.
The home will not be granted landmark status, we’ve already been told.
That we even know where Ronald Reagan lived in Chicago, for about a year when he was 4, is due to the dogged determination of the late Sun-Times columnist Thomas F. Roeser. The minute Reagan was sworn in as 40th president of the United States, Roeser went to work. Candidate Reagan had mentioned to him in passing as the two scurried through Chicago’s O’Hare airport in 1979 that he had lived in the city of “I Will” as a young child.
After the inauguration, Roeser discovered through police records, on a tip from the president that his father’s drinking often landed him in the pokey, that the Reagans had lived at 832 East 57th Street on the edge of the University of Chicago campus.
When Reagan made it back to Chicago for the centennial observance of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in September 1981, Roeser arranged to have a photo of the home taken and framed for Mayor Jane Byrne to give him.
“Mr. President,” Mayor Byrne ceremoniously said, “on your return to Chicago, I hereby present you a photo of your Chicago home.”
Looking at the photo, the president became misty-eyed as all the memories welled up inside of him. This son of an itinerant and frequently unemployed shoe salesman living in a poor, rough-and-tumble Irish working-class city had come a long way.
Today, that once-photographed building Reagan called home stands alone. It’s all that’s left of an entire block between Maryland and Drexel streets on East 57th, all else demolished by the University of Chicago to make way for a hospital and research facility.
Coincidentally, it sits across from the university’s newly inaugurated Center for Care and Discovery, which conducts state-of-the-art Alzheimer’s research.
The 90-day review of Reagan’s Chicago home — an essential slice of his Midwestern character — is winding down. An informed source at the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development told us it does not meet the criteria of being associated with Reagan’s productive years, which is just as spurious a claim now as it was in 2012 when landmark status first was denied. Reagan’s productive years were made possible only because he survived near-fatal pneumonia in that home. Furthermore, the Dixon boyhood home, where Reagan lived from 1920-1924 (ages 9-13), was landmarked by the federal Park Service, which sets the criteria.
That inconsistency notwithstanding, Reagan’s Chicago home will not be preserved unless the University of Chicago has a change of heart. Only the university can save it.
The Friends of President Reagan’s Chicago home proposes transforming 832 E. 57th Street into a museum and center. All the university needs to do is amend their plans. The museum would replicate the flat as it looked in 1915 when young “Dutch” Reagan, age 4, would gaze out the window to the excitement outside. The center would celebrate Reagan’s historic presidency and his diverse and inclusive background.
The ordinariness of it all — where one of our most extraordinary presidents once lived — is worth preserving.
Mary Claire Kendall, a Washington-based writer who contributes a regular column to Forbes.com, is president of the Friends of President Reagan’s Chicago Home. Nicholas G. Hahn III is deputy editor of RealClearReligion.org and a member of the Friends board of directors.