Ronald Reagan's Chicago home

May 2, 2012

Before Barack Obama, only one U.S. President had called Chicago home. As a boy, Ronald Reagan lived on the first floor of the building at 832 East 57th Street.

The Reagans moved into their apartment in January of 1915. They’d come to the city from the western Illinois village of Tampico. Jack Reagan, Ronald's father, got a job selling shoes in the Loop. His wife, Nelle, stayed home with the two boys, 6-year-old Neil and little Ron–called “Dutch”–who was going on 4.

The University of Chicago was a few blocks east, but the area where the Reagans settled wasn’t fashionable. Nor was the building–their flat was lighted by a single gas lamp, which operated when a quarter was deposited in a timer. They probably picked the location for its easy access to the Cottage Grove streetcar line.

After living in tiny Tampico, Chicago was a brave new world for Dutch Reagan. He was excited to see all the people and activity. When a horse-drawn fire engine clanged by his apartment window, he decided there could be no finer profession than Chicago fireman.

All was not pleasant for Dutch. He came down with bronchial pneumonia and nearly died. A neighbor brought over a set of lead soldiers for the boy to play with, and they became his favorite toy.

Jack Reagan was a drinker, which didn’t help the family's finances. President Reagan remembered that his mother “had to make a soup bone last several days and be creative in her cooking.” Fried liver was considered a Sunday feast.

The boys did their part, too. In the summer, Nelle would hang a sack of fresh-popped popcorn around each of their necks, and send them out to peddle it in front of White City amusement park, a mile away on 63rd Street. Child labor laws were fairly loose then.

Sometime in 1916 the Reagan family left Chicago and moved to Galesburg. It’s not clear whether Jack quit his Loop job, or was fired. But their time in Hyde Park was over.

Many years later, President Reagan told a friend he'd once lived in Chicago, but didn't know the address. Reagan had always been frank about his dad's drinking. The friend scoured old arrest records, and found Jack Reagan of 832 E. 57th St., charged as a "drunk-and-disorderly."

Meanwhile, in Hyde Park, the University of Chicago continues to expand. Since the Chicago home of our 40th President doesn’t have any landmark status, its future is uncertain.