Growing pains for restoration of Disney birthplace

DisneyFrom the Saturday, Jan. 18, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

It was within easy driving distance of California’s Hermosa Beach that he launched his mouse-eared empire. But for Walt Disney, the Hermosa neighborhood of Chicago is where he began his remarkable life.

And it’s on the city’s northwest side where a piece of Disney’s early life still stands – alone, for the time being.

Last month, the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and other major news outlets profiled the story of husband and wife Brent Young and Dina Benadon of Silver Lake, Calif., who last spring, purchased a humble two-story house at 2156 N. Tripp Ave. In an upstairs bedroom of the home on Dec. 5, 1901, Walt Disney was born. Eight years earlier, his brother Roy had been born in the same room, historians say.

For more than 20 years, various preservationists and entrepreneurs have tried to rustle up excitement about the house where the Disney family lived until 1906, when Walt turned four. Aldermen, however, have voted against giving it landmark status and restoration funding has repeatedly fallen through.

But Young and Benadon, the owners of Super 78 Studios, a company that designs theme park attractions, had devised a different plan after buying the home for $173,000. Last month, with the support of a preservation architect at the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s cultural historian among others, they launched an online Kickstarter campaign hoping to “authentically recreate the Disney household life experience.”

Their goals included operating the property as a private museum, called the The Walt Disney Birthplace, from which they would offer tours and stage small exhibitions.

“We don’t want to disrupt the neighborhood with a big attraction,” Young, a Chicago native, told the New York Times. “But we’re also not interested in just putting a plaque on a house.”

Added Benadon: “Our dream is that this house becomes a place that inspires creativity. We want to inspire parents to raise more Walts and Roys.”

Unfortunately for Young and Benadon, they weren’t able to raise the $500,000 that they’d hope to via Kickstarter. However, the couple did earn $111,138 in pledges – no small sum – by the time the donations window closed on Jan. 6. And, apparently, that support has left their hopes high.

“This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning,” the couple wrote Jan. 6 on their website “There are a lot of possible reasons why our Kickstarter campaign did not reach its goal, and while we look back and learn from the experience, we are also moving forward. What we know and appreciate is the incredible amount of support we have received in the past 33 days. We are so optimistic.”

It might make sense for the couple to now be more realistic, too. In early December, the New York Times reported that they had not yet contacted the Walt Disney Company about the restoration with Benadon saying, “We wanted to do this ourselves.”

“The couple may have Disney’s lawyers on their minds,” the New York Times speculated, “as Super 78’s design plans clearly state, ‘The Walt Disney Birthplace is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way connected with the Walt Disney Company.’”

While I admire Young’s and Benadon’s can-do spirit – something Walt would surely enjoy – I also think that their best bet to get the project off the ground is by approaching the Disney Co.

For what it’s worth, Walt’s nephew, Roy. P. Disney, said in a statement, “On behalf of the Disney family, we are so pleased to see Walt Disney’s historic birthplace and family home being restored to its humble origins.”

But it might require some Hollywood magic to achieve it.