A Cinderella story for Walt Disney’s birthplace?
It is a modest, two-story frame house, sitting on the corner of Tripp Avenue and Palmer Street in Chicago’s working-class Hermosa neighborhood.
But the story behind this humble green-and-gray structure is what makes it special. Back in 1891, a young itinerant contractor named Elias Disney bought an empty lot at what is now 2156 N. Tripp Ave. for $700. His wife, Flora, designed a house, which Elias built with his own hands.
Roy was born soon after the family moved to Tripp Avenue in 1893.
Then came Walter Elias Disney, who was born in a second-floor bedroom at the house on Dec. 5, 1901.
The Disney Co. founded by Walt and Roy has long been a multinational mass media and entertainment giant.
Meanwhile, the house where they were born is still somewhat off the radar, even to Disney scholars.
The family “moved from the Tripp Avenue house when Walt was still very young,” said Michael Barrier, the author of “The Animated Man,” a 2007 biography of Disney. “It’s not like Walt would have had any formative memories of being there. So people tend to think of Disney as a product of Missouri, where the family eventually moved.”
But that may change, as soon as the end of this year. That’s when Brent Young and Dina Benadon, the owners of the house, want to slowly open the property to the public, starting with the predominantly Latino community where the house is located.
“Our hope is that we can open this home to some of the local neighborhood kids to see what’s inside the home, and understand who lived here,” Young said. “We believe there’s a lot of parallels between Walt and Roy’s story and what kids in Hermosa go through today. This was a humble, working-class home, and these are working-class homes today. But this house is a symbol of the American dream.”
Young and Benadon, a married couple from Los Angeles who own a new-media company called Super 78, which produces animated movies for theme park rides, bought the property in 2013 for a mere $169,000.
Their initial plan was to restore it to its original state. But now they want to establish a multimedia-rich museum on the site, which would re-create what life was like for the Disneys in Chicago back in the early 20th century.
“Eventually, we’re going to do some tricks and magic with audio and video, so you can see the shadows of the Disney children running through the house and hear the sounds of the streets, circa 1901,” Young said. “We want to make it a completely authentic experience.”
The couple also want to establish a center for early childhood creativity at the location.
It is a pretty expensive proposition. The owners say they’ll need up to $1 million to execute the plan; they’re primarily relying on crowdsourcing to raise funds. So far, about $75,000 has been spent on the property, primarily on exterior restoration, including tearing off aluminum siding to reveal the original wood frame structure.
The work has been temporarily halted while the couple wait for the city to approve their permits to allow for the reinstallation of the porch, the picket fence and the replacement of the current windows with painstakingly crafted Victorian re-creations.
The couple also need the house to be granted landmark status by the city to extend its profile locally and nationally.
The house was considered by the City Council’s Committee on Historic Landmarks in 1997, but was voted down because it did not match its original appearance.
Now that the restoration work has begun, preservation experts believe that the landmark status is more likely.
“The question always was how much remains of the house which was there when the Disneys lived there,” said Tim Samuelson, the city of Chicago cultural historian, who is also an advisor on the project. “As the preservation work is progressing, we see a compelling case can be made” for landmark status, he said.
Elias Disney left Florida and followed his younger brother Robert to Chicago in 1890. Robert had built a hotel near the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and Elias soon began working as a carpenter at the fair.
“My dad worked as a carpenter on the World’s Fair buildings,” Walt Disney told the Saturday Evening Post in 1956. “He worked as a carpenter for $1 a day. And out of that, he and my mother saved enough money to go in business. I don’t know how he did it. He eventually ended up as a contractor. He’d buy land and mother drew the plans. My dad would build the houses and then sell them.”
The Disneys moved from the Tripp Avenue house to Marceline, Mo., in 1906, when Walt was 4. Roy Disney said Elias was concerned about increasing crime in Chicago.
“A neighboring family just like ours was very close to us,” Roy Disney said in an 1967 interview. “We woke up one morning and two of their boys were involved in a car barn robbery. Shot it out with the cops, killed a cop. One of them went to Joliet [Correctional Center] for life. We had a nice neighborhood, a lot of good Irish and Poles and Swedes around there, but it was a rough neighborhood, too, in a way.”
The Disneys would return to Chicago in 1917 when Walt was a teenager, living on the Near West Side. Walt went to high school for a time at McKinley High School, another building that is still standing and now houses Chicago Bulls College Prep, a four-year charter high school. Walt Disney also had his only formal art training in the city, at the now defunct Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
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