Photograph: heather charles/chicago tribune
Chicago just lost another small piece of its history to a big juggernaut. This time, it’s the only home where Illinois native Ronald Reagan ever lived in Chicago, a Victorian six-flat where the four-year-old future U.S. president lived in a first-floor apartment for around ten months in 1915 and 1916.
The somewhat decrepit brick building had been at risk since the University of Chicago bought it in 2004 and later began construction on a mammoth new hospital, the ten-story, $700 million Center for Care and Discovery, across the street. Preservationists started seriously fretting about the Reagan building at 832–834 E. 57th Street in 2011, when the university got permits to demolish some other buildings nearby, on South Drexel Avenue.
The university pretty much tuned out any talk of preserving the building—and in early 2011, a public relations official there swatted away my requests to see and photograph the interior. Late last year, the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks declined to give it landmark status, saying the little boy Reagan hadn’t lived there long and the building has no other distinctions.
We’re going to regret this.
Even if, like me, you voted against Ronald Reagan every time you got the chance, there’s no way to deny that he was one of the most influential presidents of the 20th Century. That building was his only childhood footprint in Chicago—even if he barely remembered—and even if the only reason history knows the address is that Ronald’s itinerant father, Jack, reported that address when he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly.
The only other president who has lived in Chicago, Barack Obama, has lived here far longer and is far more closely associated with the University of Chicago. So is First Lady Michelle Obama, who was a vice president of the school’s hospitals until she moved with her husband to the White House in 2009. In this hyper-partisan era, those connections sparked reports in conservative media outlets that the university wanted the Reagan site for parking for a future Obama presidential library.
The university has since said that there’s no such plan, and that the site will be used for ‘construction staging’ at the new hospital and later for parking for that building.
The University of Chicago spent years planning to build that gargantuan hospital as part of a city-wide hospital-building boom. The university was looking so far ahead that it planned for one entire football-field-sized floor in the hospital to be kept vacant for now, to allow for expansion later. In addition, officials envisioned duplicating the building sometime later—on the site immediately north of the hospital, where the Reagan home stood.
The hospital’s lead architect, Rafael Viñoly, described that future expansion in a presentation that I attended last summer.
This is another reason we’ll one day regret the loss of the Reagan building: instead of having just one ten-story structure (that looks like a gigantic air conditioner) looming over one of Chicago’s loveliest neighborhoods, there may one day be two of them—if the university moves forward on building that second hospital tower. (Fundraising on the first one hasn’t been going well: Crain’s reported last summer that the school had raised only $22 million of the $100 million in philanthropic giving it needed toward the $700 million cost of the project.)
Illinois has a nice list of homegrown Presidents and First Ladies: Abraham Lincoln, Reagan and Obama, North Side-raised Nancy Reagan, Park Ridge native Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama, who grew up in South Shore and who lived at several Chicago addresses with her husband, including this one, where their two daughters were born, before they moved to their better-known home on South Greenwood. You can also tip in Ulysses S. Grant, an Illinoisan who was nominated for the presidency at a convention in Chicago.
The hospital’s decision to tear down a building that is a noteworthy piece of that chain—just to put up a parking lot—seems presumptuous and short-sighted. We have our famous statue of Lincoln in Grant Park and statue of Grant in Lincoln Park. For Reagan’s short stay here, all we’ll have is a plaque on a parking lot. And maybe someday a monstrously large hospital building.