Just as the wrecking ball was poised to swing at President Reagan’s home on Chicago’s South Side, where he lived when he was 3-4 and survived near-fatal pneumonia, President Barack Obama put brain research in the national spotlight.
At that moment, the networks all broke in for Obama’s announcement that he was directing $100 million of the 2014 budget to the government’s BRAIN initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).
Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago refused to landmark Reagan’s home, thus making way for a state of the art Alzheimer’s research center (a companion to the nearby Center for Care and Discovery)—a decision the wrecking ball that day was carrying out. This, in spite of the fact that Chicago’s Landmarks Commission considered the home landmarkable during Reagan’s presidency.
Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama played huge roles at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Their former colleague, Susan Sher, the first lady’s chief of staff and a major player in the passage of Obamacare, now serves both as senior adviser to University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer and executive vice president for corporate strategy and public affairs at the medical center. Funding for the research centers has seriously lagged, falling tens of millions of dollars short of its goal, according to Crain’s.
By week’s end, I felt like I had been bulldozed. It had been a rigorous climb, aided by key allies on our board and beyond, many who were Reagan intimates. Not only did we have the city and university as obstacles but many of our natural allies, unlike Reagan, had adopted an attitude, “It Can’t Be Done.”
In the end, it wasn’t meant to be. A larger lesson was intended.
Recently, a huge surprise was waiting outside my door. A friend had “bribed (Chicago style)” a key person for “a keepsake commemorating ‘our President's childhood home.’” After waiting quite some time, this key person, he said, returned with a brick from Reagan’s home, reporting, it “would not be allowed again.”
He wanted me to have “something solid upon which to build a future,” inscribing it, “R. Reagan Home, 4.4.2013, Chicago” and said I probably have the only brick from the home. (Albeit those who knew that one of America’s greatest presidents had once lived there were able to retrieve some bricks as keepsakes in that small window before they were swooped away from the sidewalk.)
“While it is true that Heneghan Wrecking (‘We Make Space’),” he wrote, “used the open street to position their heavy equipment, they contained all the demolition and debris behind a locked-fence area. That made it impossible for the ‘public’ to pick up any mementos.”
Each day they carted off all the debris “whether wood, metal, or masonry”—which is highly irregular, he said. “Typically such piles accumulate on-site until the walls are down, basement filled, and ground leveled. Consequently, I don’t think many souvenirs for future generation to cherish will ever turn up.”
He was “pleased to note” that “the brick was 100% solid. Brickyards were turning out lighter units with core holes (typically 3 large holes, sometimes 8-12 small ones) by 1915-1920 in order to decrease kiln time and speed up production. We can be sure, therefore, that this brick was part of the original building and not some later alteration.”
The callousness of the city of Chicago and the university, not only in forbidding mementos but, more importantly, in razing Reagan’s home, is at variance with Ronald Reagan, Mr. Sunshine and Optimism himself. Should we therefore be surprised that Chicago was recently ranked the fourth most miserable city to live in by Forbes? They needed the envisioned Ronald Reagan Museum and Center. Blending the old and the new, as First Lady Jackie Kennedy did with Lafayette Square, was entirely possible. But, for her vision and determination, Lafayette Square would be covered with one monstrosity of a building today.
Now, perhaps with a government assist, courtesy Obama, the site where little “Dutch” Reagan lived and dreamed of becoming a firefighter will, in time, be covered with just such a monstrosity. That it will house those who hope to find a cure for Alzheimer’s underscores how important and appropriate it was to save the home. But, it was not to be. The larger lesson, in the end, had nothing to do with our brains, but with our hearts and how small they had grown.
Mary Claire Kendall is a writer in Washington and president of Friends of President Reagan’s Chicago Home.