Op-Ed: The real story on Ronald Reagan's childhood home

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When Peter Hannaford and I first spotlighted the plight of the Chicago home where President Reagan lived as a young child, the most reliable sources thought the building, owned by the University of Chicago, would be demolished by Jan. 1.

Conservative radio host Tom Roeser, who passed away in May 2011, was the one who found out, while talking with former California Gov. Ronald Reagan as they rushed through the O'Hare Airport concourse in 1979 and then over lunch, that young "Dutch" Reagan had lived in Chicago for a time while his father worked at Marshall Field's. Roeser made a mental note that, should Reagan be elected president, it would be important to figure out exactly where he had lived and when. Accordingly, in 1981, Roeser ferreted out clues by talking with Reagan and his staff and soon hit pay dirt. In 1986, while Reagan was president, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks described his childhood home as being "noteworthy due to historical associations," giving it "landmark potential."

In 2004, the University of Chicago bought the parcel of land on which the home sat as officials contemplated future expansion of the medical center. In 2010, they began to develop an actual plan. Roeser became aware that the Reagan home might be threatened and began to write about it again shortly before his death.

On Oct. 17, 2012, the university held a meeting announcing plans to demolish the building. I became involved with a group of dedicated Reaganites and Hyde Park preservationists to save the home -- an effort that became especially urgent when demolition equipment showed up on site on Dec. 27.

At that point, I spoke with Eleanor Gorski, Chicago's assistant commissioner/director of historic preservation, who approves demolition permits. She affirmed in January that she expected the review process -- required by law because the city's 1985 Historic Resources Survey listed Reagan's home in the top 2 percent of historic buildings in Chicago -- will take the full 90 days, and that landmark status remains a possibility for Reagan's childhood home. (The home was denied landmark status in late 2012 after community activist Redd Griffin, a friend of mine who championed this cause before his death last year, formally wrote the Chicago Landmarks Commission to "suggest" that designation.)

It does appear that a solution could be in the works. Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development, had been downplaying the worth of the Reagan home, but the University of Chicago's student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, subsequently quoted him saying that "the City of Chicago's Historic Preservation Division will use this time to 'reach out to the property owner and discuss alternatives to demolition.' "

Shortly thereafter, we incorporated Friends of President Reagan's Chicago Home as a nonprofit in Illinois to work with the university to honor President Reagan's memory appropriately and complete the Ronald Reagan Trail in Illinois. We also intend to make a contribution to all the Reagan homes in Illinois each year, "underscoring," as our corporate purpose statement notes, that the trail "is one, with the Chicago home enhancing the whole."

As for the notion that the land on which the Reagan property now sits is slated to become the parking garage for President Obama's presidential library, that is simply untrue. The parking garage is, in fact, being built the next block over, for visitors heading to their respective destinations -- the contemplated Reagan museum and center, the contemplated Obama presidential library and, of course, the Center for Care and Discovery, which is being officially inaugurated on Feb. 23. Fittingly, the latter will be the site of state-of-the-art Alzheimer's research.

Mary Claire Kendall is acting president/CEO of Friends of President Reagan's Chicago Home Inc.

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