Ronald Reagan’s house is falling apart.
We don’t mean his beloved Republican Party. We’re talking about an actual house, the one Reagan called home during his childhood in Dixon, Ill.
Last month, the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Preservation Foundation sent out an urgent appeal for funds to fix rotting siding, moldy bathrooms, aging roofs and other signs of deferred maintenance.
“After 32 years of being open to visitors from all parts of the world, the home in which Ronald Reagan spent part of his formative years has fallen into disrepair,” wrote Patrick Gorman. “I am reaching out to you and other like-minded individuals to help save this hallowed structure and restore the dignity to the home of one of the greatest United States Presidents of modern times.”
Given that the 40th president is revered as the model of all that was good and wise in the Grand Old Party, and that there’s an ongoing effort to plaster his name on a landmark in each of America’s 3,144 counties — well, it’s a little surprising that the folks in Dixon are in desperate need of $58,495.
“We’re hand-to-mouth,” says foundation president John Thompson. “We’re trying to figure out how to sustain that facility.”
And therein lies a tale of hometown pride, good intentions and the cost of nostalgia.
Fun fact: Presidents Lincoln, Grant and Obama all rose to political power in Illinois, but Reagan is the only president who was actually born in the state. (Hillary Clinton, born in Chicago, would be the second if she wins this year’s election.)
Reagan arrived on Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, a tiny town in the northwest corner, in a second-floor apartment above a bakery. It was the first of several homes the Reagan family rented over the next two decades, in a peripatetic lifestyle fueled by the father’s alcoholism and checkered job history. By the time he was 9 years old, “Dutch” Reagan had lived in six different places.
In 1920, the Reagans moved about 30 miles to Dixon (population 8,000) and rented a two-story house on Hennepin Avenue for $23 a month. Built in 1891, the house had two parlors, a dining room, a kitchen, an indoor toilet and three bedrooms: one for Reagan and his older brother, Neil; one for their parents; and one that Nelle Reagan used as a sewing room. There was a small barn out back where the boys raised rabbits.
It was a happy chapter: Jack Reagan had steady work as a salesman, Nelle was active in the church and the community, and the boys were busy with school and sports. They had all the trappings of a middle-class life, but the relative prosperity didn’t last: The family moved from Hennepin Avenue to a smaller, less expensive house at 338 W. Everett St. in 1923.
As Reagan got older, his childhood took on a rosy patina. “All of us have a place to go back to; Dixon is that place for me,” he wrote in his 1965 autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?’’ “There was the life that has shaped my body and mind for all the years to come after.’’
Flash-forward to 1980, when postman Lynn Knights noticed that the house on Hennepin Avenue was for sale. A group of local business leaders formed a private foundation and purchased the property for $29,000, predicting that it would become a tourist attraction if Reagan was elected president.
Soon after his election, Reagan asked a number of big donors to help with the restoration costs. Norm Wymbs, a wealthy supporter from Florida whose wife had grown up in Illinois, led the effort. He moved to Dixon and served as chairman of the foundation for 20 years.
Wymbs worshiped Reagan and wanted to preserve the house exactly. He hired an architect to restore the interior to its original blueprint and tracked down the wallpaper manufacturer to reprint the original designs. He asked Neil Reagan to comb through the Sears catalogues of the time and point out pieces similar to what had been in the house. Wymbs also bought adjacent houses and created a park, a parking lot and a visitors’ center. It’s unclear how much of his own money Wymbs poured into the project, but he said that the final tally was about $5 million.
On Feb. 6, 1984, President Reagan celebrated his 73rd birthday by officially opening the fully restored property.
“Times were tough,” he told the audience. “But what I remember most clearly is that Dixon held together. Our faith was our strength. Our teachers pointed to the future. People held on to their hopes and dreams. Neighbors helped neighbors. We knew — my brother, Moon, and I, our mother and father, Nelle and Jack, saw to that — saw that we knew we would overcome adversity and that after the storm, the stars would come.”
Patrick Gorman has a special affection for Reagan: He grew up in the house on Everett Street, slept on the same porch where Dutch had slept for four years. His parents were a little disappointed when the house on Hennepin Avenue was designated the childhood home, but that was the one mentioned in Reagan’s autobiography. When the foundation was looking for a new director this summer, the former nuclear plant worker was all in.
“I jumped at it because of where I grew up and my connection to Reagan,” says Gorman. “I’m not a political person of any kind.”
He was shocked to find that the place needed a lot of work. The inside was okay, but the exterior had been neglected and was in sore need of repair. He decided to send a fundraising letter to about 40 “conservative gentlemen” who he thought might donate, and included a detailed list of repairs and estimated costs.
Money, or lack thereof, is the problem. After Norm Wymbs finished the house, he turned his attention to Reagan’s former middle school and spent an estimated $25 million transforming it into the Dixon Historic Center (now the Northwest Territory Historic Center).
There was a brief window when it looked as if the house on Hennepin Avenue would join other presidential sites as part of the National Park Service. In 2001, then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert pushed a bill making the home — located in his congressional district — a National Historic Site to be owned and operated by the federal government. The bill passed by voice vote; President George W. Bush happily signed it.
Reagan would have joined an illustrious, if random, list of other presidents honored with their own historical site administered by the Park Service , including George Washington, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, John. F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (These parks are separate from the 13 presidential libraries, which are operated by the National Archives and Records Administration at an estimated cost of $60 million a year.)
But Hastert’s bill was contingent on the sale of the property to the federal government. When the Interior Department offered only $420,000, based on an appraisal of the structures and the land, the foundation was offended. The offer, it felt, didn’t take into account the Reagan legacy and the effort and money that had gone into the restoration. “It’s insulting,” Wymbs told reporters in 2003. “I say the heck with them.”
Although the deal would have ensured the financial future of the house, the people of Dixon still aren’t sure that they’d accept an offer and give up all control. “I think the sentiment is that this is our hometown president and the story of that is ours to tell,” says Thompson.
The house on Hennepin Avenue has enjoyed modest success: Open April through October, it welcomes 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year who browse through the rooms, watch a short film about Reagan, maybe buy a T-shirt or one of his old movies in the gift shop. Admission is $5.
The foundation has resisted efforts to use the property as a prop for news conferences or commercials. “We’ve had a lot of folks who want to ride the Reagan coattails, but we have policies that prevent that,” says Thompson.
So no big bucks from political events, and fundraising has been slow, primarily because the Reagan loyalists who initially financed the restoration are dying off. (Wymbs died this month at 92.) There was a burst of donations in 2011 — the centennial of Reagan’s birth — that brought $251,884. That figure dropped to just $22,992 in 2014, according to IRS documents, and last year was even worse.
Two years ago, the foundation used what little savings it had, about $175,000, to quietly purchase the other houses on the block in hopes of expanding the site to include an exhibition and meeting space. If it can raise enough money, which is increasingly a big if.
And assuming, of course, that it can keep the place from falling down.