Walt Disney’s childhood home opens doors for first public tours

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Rebecca Johnson | Chicago Tribune (TNS)

CHICAGO — In Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood, a modest two-story home sits on North Tripp Avenue. While typically unassuming, dozens of people lined up outside it Sunday, some in clothes featuring Mickey Mouse, waiting for a chance to peek inside the green and gray wood cottage.

Walt Disney’s childhood home opened to the public for the first time this weekend as part of Chicago Architecture Center’s Open House Chicago. Organizers said they hope to keep Disney’s legacy alive, give insight into how the pioneer of animated cartoon films grew up, and inspire other young people in the neighborhood to pursue their dreams.

“We are in an inner city of Chicago, so the understanding of dreaming and doing and achieving, because you truly never know who you’re going to become. You never know who you’re going to inspire,” said Angel Reyes, an ambassador for the home and Miss Illinois USA 2022.

Elias Disney, Walt’s father, purchased the property at 2156 N. Tripp Ave. in 1891. The following year he got a permit to build the two-story wood cottage for $800, and Flora, Walt’s mother, crafted the architectural plans. In early 1893, the couple and their two sons, Herbert and Raymond, moved in. Their third son, Roy, was born soon after. In a second-floor bedroom, Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901.

“(Elias) was a contractor who built homes like this one, and he was the one who built this house. Flora was the one who designed it,” said Rey Colón, project director of the Walt Disney Birthplace. “Very progressive that both Flora and Elias’ names were on the deed. He didn’t just have her listed as wife. She was an equal partner with him in his business ventures.”

The tour began at the parlor on the first floor, the space where the family entertained. Colón said much of the original wood trim and walls were removed over the years, and that there was just one closet that had samples of the wood. He said they re-created the original rosettes and trim from one tree, “which we believe is the way Elias would have wanted it done.”

There’s also a colorized photo of Walt and his younger sister, Ruth, at the home in 1905 inside the parlor.

A 1905 picture of Walt Disney and his sister Ruth is displayed in the parlor as visitors tour the childhood home of Disney at the corner of North Tripp Avenue and West Palmer Street in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood on Oct. 15, 2023, during Open House Chicago. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Tour guide Rich Frachey said Elias had many other jobs during his life — furniture-maker, orange farmer and even a fiddle player. Inside the parlor, Frachey said it’s easy for him to imagine him playing the fiddle or telling stories about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he was a construction worker.

“All the innovations that were debuted there, including the first Ferris wheel, Cracker Jacks, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, a machine that would wash the dishes, elevators, typewriters and more,” Frachey said. “Did they sit in this parlor and read the book called ‘The Wizard of Oz’?”

Some biographers speculate Elias’ stories of the fair influenced Walt’s creation of Disneyland and some of its popular attractions such as “Tomorrowland,” “Frontierland” and “Main Street, U.S.A.”

The tour then went through the family’s dining room and kitchen, which included items such as a washboard, a butter churn and a rug beater. Inside what is now a closet on the first floor, Elias built a toilet, which organizers said was innovative for the time.

Upstairs, after climbing a set of steep stairs, people glimpsed at a bigger bedroom belonging to Herbert and Raymond, while Walt and Roy shared a smaller one. The home the Disney family lived in was 1,200 square feet. Later on, organizers said, additional rooms were added in the back of the home, which they now use as office space.

The Disneys moved out in 1906, relocating to Missouri. They eventually returned to Chicago in 1917 when Walt was a teenager. They lived in the North Lawndale neighborhood, and Walt attended McKinley High School.

Colón said even with Saturday’s rain, more than 550 people showed up for the tour. While attendance was less on Sunday, he still expected a sizable turnout. Before they only did private tours, he said.

According to Walt Disney Birthplace, Chicago attempted to designate the property as a historical landmark in 1991, but the owner fought the designation and won. Today, the new owners are working with the city to restore the home to its 1901 state.

Colón said there’s been around 10 years of fundraising to get the home to its current state but more contributions are needed to fully restore and furnish it. He said it’s exciting to see lots of interest in the home, and they hope to organize more tours in the future.

“We’re still trying to figure out how, how do we go about the registration process, getting people in, how often do we do it,” Colón said.

For Reyes, who was born and raised in Hermosa, the turnout was “overwhelming but in a good way.”

“Just to see how many people are still interested in knowing the front story, when Walt began and what that looked like for him, we’re definitely thrilled,” she said.


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