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Ronald Reagan's Boyhood Home Being Demolished by University of Chicago

By Sam Cholke | April 3, 2013 7:51am | Updated on April 4, 2013 10:16am

HYDE PARK — Demolition began Tuesday on the Hyde Park apartment building where President Ronald Reagan lived for about two years as a child.

Crews from Heneghan Wrecking Co. were out with cranes fitted with large metal claws to pick apart the building at 832 E. 57th St., where the 40th U.S. president lived with his parents in 1914 and 1915.

The University of Chicago bought the building in 2004 as part of a decade-long effort to buy all residential property immediately north of the hospital.

“The university plans to install a plaque at 832 E. 57th St. to commemorate President Reagan’s connection with that site,” the university said.

Preservationists had tried to save the building, but were unable to persuade city or university officials that the gas-lit apartment where Reagan lived from ages 2 to 3 was historically significant.

Mary Claire Kendall, president of Friends of President Reagan's Chicago Home, said her group wrote to university President Robert Zimmer on Jan. 9, but never received a reply, which she attributed to "high-level politics."

"We did, however, reach out to major players with means and influence who could talk with President Zimmer but it is unclear what, if any, contact was made," Kendall said. "I am certain, however, my message was reinforced through back channels — namely that we wanted to work with the university to preserve the home and transform it into a museum and center."

The university said it has no immediate plans to build on the property.

“In the short term, the site will be part of a construction staging area, to be used for the new Center for Care and Discovery Hospital and for construction of a new parking garage for the medical center,” the university said.

Despite rumors, the university has repeatedly stated that the site will not be used for a Barack Obama presidential library.

Though the effort to save the home garnered significant media attention, it suffered a setback when the leader of the campaign, Redd Griffin of Oak Park, died on Nov. 20. Though others picked up the effort, it never gained the support of Hyde Park’s preservation community.

“Break the walls, floors, ceiling and fixtures of the Reagan family apartment into small fragments and sell them on the Internet for between $100 and $1,000 a chip, depending on the size,” Frances Vaandervort, a board member of the Hyde Park Historical Society, said in a letter to the university’s newspaper.

“This should raise many thousands of dollars for the university, rather like selling fragments of the True Cross.”

In his 1990 autobiography "An American Life," Reagan wrote of how the family had moved to Chicago from western Illinois so his father could find work.

"We moved into a small flat near the University of Chicago that was lighted by a single gas jet brought to life with the deposit of a quarter in a slot down the hall,” Reagan wrote.

Life was hard, as his father didn't make much money. His mother would send Reagan’s brother to a local butcher shop for some liver to feed the family cat — a pet “which didn’t exist.”

“The family liver became our Sunday dinner,” Reagan wrote.

Reagan became sick with bronchial pneumonia and, while recuperating, played with toy soldiers while lying in bed in the small apartment.

“I spent hours standing them up on the bed covers and pushing them back and forth in mock combat. To this day I get a little thrill out of seeing a cabinet full of toy soldiers,” Reagan recalled.

Living in Chicago “introduced me to a congested urban world of gas-lit sidewalks and streets alive with people, carriages, trolley cars, and occasional automobiles,” Reagan said. “Once, while watching a clanging horse-drawn fire engine race past me with a cloud of steam rising behind it, I decided that it was my intention in life to become a fireman.”

After living in Chicago for less than two years, the family moved back to western Illinois, to Galesburg.