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Opinion

Hyde Park showdown over Reagan's childhood home

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Opinion,Op-Eds

When President Reagan was four, he loved looking out the window of his home on 832 East 57th Street in Hyde Park, not far from the University of Chicago, watching the horse-drawn fire engines storm down the street.

He later wrote in a 1988 letter, that watching the firemen "come down the street at full gallop ... made me decide I wanted to be a fireman." So he did -- only the fires he put out were of a larger, geopolitical nature, such as winning the Cold War without firing a shot.

A hot war is now underway over the University of Chicago Medical Center's decision to raze Reagan's Chicago childhood home, which it announced this fall, giving no definite date (best guess: by Jan. 1). The property on which Reagan's Hyde Park home sits is slated to become an empty lot. At the same time, the university is lobbying vigorously to build President Obama's Presidential Library.

Reagan was the only president born and bred in Illinois. The home where his family lived in 1915 was his only Chicago residence. It had no hot water and was heated by a coin-operated gas lamp. The family was knitted into their Irish working-class community, bordered by a storied working-class black community. His father, Jack, was a clerk at the Fair Store, his mother Nelle a seamstress. Dutch and his brother Neil, age 6, would peddle freshly-made popcorn at the White City amusement park a mile away to help ease the family financial troubles, which were exacerbated by Jack's drinking habit.

Yet the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has denied Reagan's home landmark status. As Terry Tatum of the Historic Preservation Division, Department of Housing and Urban Development, recently wrote to me, "Upon review, the DHED staff does not believe that the building meets the minimum of two criteria for landmark designation." Namely, it does not have "sufficient architectural significance" and it is "not associated with Mr. Reagan during his active and productive years. ..."

Historic preservations groups, including Lost Chicago, dispute the former finding, yet find it unsurprising. As columnist Mike Royko famously wrote, trying to save Chicago landmarks is like preaching "celibacy in a Playboy Club." Indeed, nearby Washington Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was slated to be razed in the event the city won its Summer Olympics bid.

Regarding the commission's latter finding, not only were Reagan's Chicago years formative, helping shape his winning personality and desire to help others, but he survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia while living there, making his later life possible. A kindly neighbor gave Dutch a set of lead soldiers to play with and, as his lungs recovered, he would while away the hours re-enacting the battles taking place in Europe at the dawn of World War I.

What does Mayor Rahm Emanuel have to say about this epic battle now taking place in Chicago? The mayor's office has yet to get back to me.

I learned of this battle because my friend Redd Griffin, founder of the Hemingway Society of Oak Park, was trying to save Reagan's home. Redd died unexpectedly on Nov. 20. He had been working behind the scenes but was planning to go public if the university rode roughshod over Reagan's memory while no one was watching.

Redd had reconciled himself to the fact that there may someday be just a plaque outside the demolished home honoring the 40th president's memory. If enough people take notice, though, perhaps that plaque will read: "Thanks to Redd Griffin's efforts, the only Chicago home of the only president born in Illinois was saved."

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter.


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