Walt Disney in Chicago AN ESSAY AT
Yesterland
 
Walt Disney was born December 5, 1901—that’s 107 years ago today.
Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, December 5, 2008    

Where was Walt Disney born?

Was it Marceline, Missouri? No. Young Walt spent four childhood years on a family farm near this small Midwestern town—a memorable period of his life that influenced everything from the farmyard settings of many early Mickey Mouse cartoons to the design of Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland. But he wasn’t born in Marceline.

Was it Kansas City, Missouri? No. Walt lived there as a pre-teen and young teenager, and it’s where he later attempted several business ventures as a young artist, after returning from his Red Cross service in France. But he wasn’t born in Kansas City.

Was it Mojacar, Spain? No. Although a published biography and numerous websites claim that Walt Disney was actually the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a local washer-woman, that story has been discredited.

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Walt Disney was born in a second-floor bedroom of this house. (2008 photo)

The real answer to the question, “Where was Walt Disney born?” is that Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois.

Walt Disney’s father, Elias Disney (1859-1941) was a carpenter and builder (among other vocations). In 1891, Elias bought a 25-by-125-foot lot at 1249 Tripp Avenue in a newly developing section of Chicago. He built a simple, rectangular frame house on that lot with his own hands.

It was there, on the second floor, that Flora Call Disney (1868-1938) gave birth to their fourth son, Walter Elias Disney, on December 5, 1901. Two years later, on December 6, 1903, Elias and Flora finally had a daughter too—Walt’s little sister Ruth.

By the way, the reason that Elias Disney moved from Florida to Chicago was to work as a carpenter on the construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. I can’t help but wonder what stories Elias later told his son Walt about this spectacular World’s Fair, which immersed 26 million guests in environments unlike anything they had seen before.

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A side view of the house shows its aluminum siding and rear addition. (2008 photo)

In 1909, the address of the house changed to 2156 North Tripp Avenue. The house didn’t move. Chicago developed a rational city-wide street name and numbering system, replacing the old inconsistent addresses. But, by that time the Disney family was living in Marceline, Missouri.

The house is still there. It’s not a museum; people live in it. There’s not even a small sign or plaque explaining its significance as the birthplace and childhood home of one of the most influential people of the twentieth century. The only sign on the house has the name of the current property management company and their phone number.

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Today, Walt Disney’s birthplace house contains two apartments. (2008 photo)

Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development pushed for Historic Landmark status in 1997. On February 25, 1997, the day of the vote by the City Council’s Committee on Historic Landmarks, the Chicago Tribune wrote that approval was doubtful:

While the house meets some of the city’s criteria for landmarking—being the birthplace of an American icon—it does not match its original appearance. It has aluminum siding, and a front porch and rear addition were added.
More important, the owner of the house for 26 years, June Saathoff, a 59-year-old retiree on a fixed income, opposes the designation. In most cases, aldermen don’t like to designate landmarks without the owner’s consent, especially if the owner is of modest means.
“I appreciate the history of Disney. It’s been fun and it’s been interesting,” Saathoff said, “but it is my home. It would impose unfair restrictions.”
Landmark designation would prohibit her from demolishing the house, and she would need city approval for certain changes to the facade. For instance, a request to widen a bay window might be rejected if the proportions are deemed aesthetically jarring.
“If I wanted to sell it and the new owners knew they’d have to get city permission for some things, I might not be able to sell it,” Saathoff said.

The vote failed.

The current owners of the Walt Disney birthplace, Radoje and Barbara Popovic, bought the house in 2002 for $190,000. In December 2006, the Popovics listed the house on eBay in the hope that someone would pay a premium for its historic value. The Chicago Tribune reported, “The auction is to last 30 days, and bidding starts at $280,000 for the home.”

No bidder was willing to pay what the Popovics wanted, so the couple continues to rent out each of the two floors.

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The former St. Paul Congregational Church still serves the neighborhood. (2008 photo)

The Chicago neighborhood of Hermosa, where the house is located, is working-class and primarily Hispanic. The homes of the neighborhood, many of which were built in the same era as Walt Disney’s birthplace, appear well-maintained, as do their yards. For those who know Chicago, the closest major intersection is Fullerton Avenue and Pulaski Road.

One block east and one block north of Walt Disney’s birthplace—at 2255 North Keeler Avenue in Chicago—there’s a small church that was built the year before Walt Disney was born. It was originally St. Paul Congregational Church.

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The cornerstone of the church still shows the original name. (2008 photo)

The contractor who built the church was Elias Disney, but the Disney connection goes beyond that. The pastor of the church was Walter Parr, a close friend of Elias Disney. When Rev. Parr was away, Elias Disney would sometimes take the pulpit. Flora Disney was the church’s treasurer. Walt Disney was baptized there. In case you ever wondered where the name Walter Elias Disney came from, look no further than the first names of Walter Parr and Elias Disney. In 1904, the Parrs had a son; they named him Walter Elias Parr.

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The church now has a different name than when Walt Disney was born. (2008 photo)

It’s no longer St. Paul’s Congregational Church. It’s now Iglesia Evangelica Bautista Betania (Bethany Evangelical Baptist Church).

Elias Disney returned to Chicago from Kansas City in 1917 after investing in the O-Zell Company, a jelly and juice producer. The new family residence for Elias, Flora, Walt, and Ruth was at 1523 West Ogden Avenue.

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Walt Disney was a high school freshman in this building. (2008 photo)

After working the summer selling candy on the railroad, 15-year-old Walt entered McKinley High School in Chicago at 2040 West Adams Street in Chicago. It would be his final year of formal education. The impressive, classically designed public school had opened in 1904.

By 1954, McKinley High School was the oldest high school in Chicago. That year, the school merged with Crane Technical High School and moved out of the building. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system was dealing with a shortage of elementary school space, so the former high school building was put to a new use.

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It’s no longer called McKinley High School. (2008 photo)

In 1980, another Chicago West Side school, Cregier Vocational High School, faced a big problem. Although the school offered a successful vocational education program, its building was in dire need of an expensive renovation. CPS came up with another solution. Cregier Vocational High School moved into the former McKinley High School building in 1981. However, in 1995, Cregier High School was closed for poor performance.

Once again, CPS had a surplus building. Recognizing that students often do better in smaller schools which can offer a personalized learning environment, CPS came up with the idea of putting multiple small schools into existing big buildings. The first of these was the Cregier Multiplex, which opened in 1996. What had originally opened in 1904 as McKinley High School is now a collection of three separate schools under one roof—Foundations Elementary School, Nia Elementary School, and Best Practices High School.

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The school building has majestic architectural details from a century ago. (2008 photo)

The Landmarks Division of the City of Chicago maintains a database of over 17 thousand properties of historical significance. The database identifies Walt Disney’s birthplace, St. Paul Congregational Church, and McKinley High School as possessing “potentially significant architectural or historical features,” despite none of them being official Chicago Landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the house, the church, and the high school are still there, other important sites from Walt Disney’s Chicago are long-gone.

The same year that Walt attended McKinley High School, he took evening cartooning classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts at 81 East Monroe Street—the old Willoughby Building at the corner of Monroe Street and Michigan Avenue. (That’s right across the street from what is today Millennium Park.) By the way, some biographies say that Walt attended classes at the “Chicago Institute of Art,” presumably referring the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), which is still a highly respected art school and is associated with the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago museum. The confusion is probably due to the fact that before the Chicago of Institute of Art took its current name, it had been called the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts from 1879 to 1882. But the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts that Walt attended was an entirely different school, founded in the early 1900s by artist Carl Werntz.

An interesting crime news item appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 4, 1968:

Walt Disney Painting Stolen from Academy:
A Walt Disney painting was stolen yesterday from a 19th floor hallway of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts at 32 E. Randolph St. The panting, 18 by 36 inches, depicts Snow White in the forest surrounded by Disney animals. It was give to the academy seven years ago by Disney, a former student.

The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts is now defunct, and the building has been gone since the 38-story Willoughby Tower replaced the older 8-story Willoughby Building in 1929.

The home where the Disneys lived at 1523 Ogden Avenue is gone, replaced by a newer home.

The places where Walt Disney worked in 1918 are also gone:

  • The downtown post office in Chicago’s old Federal Building was razed in 1965 to make way for the 45-floor Kluczynski Federal Building. (On September 4, 1918, during Walt Disney’s period of employment there, a bomb allegedly planted by the International Workers of the World killed four people.)
  • The 35th Street “L” (elevated train) station was destroyed in 1962 by fire. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) opened a new station at 35th Street in 1965. It’s now called the 35-Bronzeville-IIT station on CTA Green Line.
  • There’s no longer any trace of the O-Zell Company, a jelly and juice facility partially owned by Elias Disney, on the 1300 block of West 15th Street.

By publishing this article, I’m not suggesting that Disney fans visiting Chicago should head to the places where I took these pictures. None of them are open for public tours. They don’t even have historic markers describing their connection with Walt Disney.


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Updated December 6, 2013.

Photographs of Chicago sites from Walt Disney’s youth: Werner Weiss, 2008.