It’s astonishing to learn how few people know that one of the 20th century’s most influential Americans was born in Chicago. A new museum is out to change that—and turn an unassuming home on a quiet street in the Hermosa neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest side into a bucket-list destination for Disney fans across the globe.
Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901 on the second floor of the home that now stands at 2156 N. Tripp Ave (the address has changed over time). Elias Disney, Walt’s father and a carpenter, purchased the property on Oct. 31, 1891 and built a home there for his growing family. Elias, his wife Flora, and their two children, Herbert and Raymond, moved into the home in 1893. Their third son, Roy, was born soon thereafter, on June 24, 1893. Two years after Walt’s birth, Walter and Flora welcomed their fifth child, Ruth, on Dec. 6, 1903.
The extraordinary significance of this home, where the Disney family lived from 1893 until 1906 when they moved to Marceline, Missouri, cannot be understated. Three of the five children were born here, and this was the place in which the Disneys spent the most time together as a family of seven.
Preserving Walt Disney’s Birthplace for Future Generations
When Dina Benadon and Brent Young learned that the home had fallen into disrepair, they stepped in to buy it, saving this important piece of American history from potentially being lost forever. They purchased the home in 2013, committed to turning it into a museum, The Walt Disney Birthplace, and launched a painstaking renovation process, funded by a crowdfunding campaign and a significant grant by The Walt Disney Company Foundation.
Because Walt Disney was only 4 when the family moved out of the home and headed for Marceline, Missouri, the prevailing mindset has been that time spent in the house would have had minimal impact on Walt and the trajectory his future took. “It’s not like Walt would have had any formative memories of being there,” Michael Barrier, author of Walt Disney biography “The Animated Man” told the Chicago Tribune. “So people tend to think of Disney as a product of Missouri, where the family eventually moved,” Barrier said.
Not so, say Benadon and Young, and indeed, science. According to the latest research on early childhood development, a child’s brain develops more during the first five years than at any other time in life. In fact, 90% of brain development is complete by the time a child turns 5, making this a critically important period in determining a child’s ability to learn and succeed throughout their life. Far from being the least significant period in Walt Disney’s life, the time he spent in his first home was arguably the most fundamental to the man he became. Walt’s brother and business partner Roy, a bit of an unsung hero in the story of the Walt Disney Company, also spent the better part of his childhood—13 years—in the home.
Armed with this knowledge and a commitment to giving the world a chance to see where these beloved American icons got their start, Benadon and Young assembled a superstar team of experts to restore the house to the place the Disney family called home.
Bringing Walt’s Home Back to Life
The fact that Elias Disney built this home with his own hands made it even more imperative to the restoration team, led by preservation architect Charlie Pipal with the help of Chicago historian Tim Samuelson, to salvage and restore every original component possible, from floorboards to siding. Pipal, an adjunct professor in the Historic Preservation Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, even commissioned a forensic analysis of the home’s paint layers to determine the original colors the home would have been when the Disney family lived there.
Today, the structural restoration to the original portion of the home occupied by the Disney family (a later addition to the back of the home will be utilized for museum operations) is complete. Passersby can marvel at the sparkling new paint job, beautiful porch, and manicured lawn and garden designed by landscape architects Scott Byron and Associates.
Still to come…
But, there’s more work to be done. The team behind the project have lofty plans to transform the interior of the home in to a veritable interactive time machine—and they’ve got the chops to do it. Benadon and Young, co-founders of Super 78 a Los Angeles-based animation/design and media production company that develops and designs attractions for theme parks and museums, have made a career of creating immersive, interactive attractions like the one they’ve envisioned for the Birthplace.
When the museum opens its doors to the public, guests will cross the threshold and feel like they’ve stepped straight into the foyer of the Disney family’s home in turn-of-the-century Chicago. They’ll smell dinner cooking in the kitchen, hear the sounds of Walt and Roy playing and laughing in their bedroom upstairs, and get to explore the home, peeking in furniture drawers and poking their heads around corners to discover magical surprises and high-tech interactive elements that promise to deliver a truly transportive experience.
The coolest part of their plan? As we already mentioned, the back of the home was previously extended by an addition, so the windows that once looked out onto the backyard are now solid walls. But not for long. The team plans to bring the windows back in the form of high-tech video screens that will mimic windows, but instead enable guests to look “outside” and see and hear the sights and sounds the Disney family would have while they lived there. “We want this house tour to be a unique experience that allows guests to interact in a way that immersion has never done before,” says Benadon.
Sounds fun, right? Just wait until you hear how you’ll get there.
Hermosa is a quiet working-class neighborhood not all that dissimilar today to what it was like when the Disneys lived there, and Benadon and team plan to keep it that way. Because the home is on a residential street, parking is currently an issue for visitors. So, the big-picture plans also include identifying a nearby location where a parking lot and visitor center can be built to preserve the peacefulness of the block of Tripp Ave. where the home sits.
Guests will be able to park and begin the storytelling journey in the visitor center before boarding a trolley that will bring them to the museum. Onboard the trolley, as in the museum, the Super 78 team will bring their theme park attraction design skills to the experience. Guests will be greeted by an in-character driver, who will continue the Disney family’s story during their trip. Trolley windows will actually be screens, giving guests the illusion that they’re traveling through the neighborhood at the turn of the century—a “window” into what life in Chicago was like at the time.
Elias Disney also built a church around the corner from the home, as well as two additional homes on the street, so additional stops on the trolley tour could also be on the itinerary.
Inspiring Future Generations
Walt Disney’s realization of the American Dream lies the heart of the vision for the museum. The idea that a kid who grew up in this modest home in a working-class Chicago neighborhood could, through a combination of creativity, confidence, and hard work, go on to become the man who brought us Mickey Mouse, Disney theme parks, and the global media empire Disney continues to be today, is a story that continues to move all who’ve been touched by Disney’s legacy. Benadon and Young want this museum to be a place that lights a creative spark for young visitors and reminds them that they can too be anything.
To further this mission, the museum will also house the Center for Early Childhood Creativity and Innovation (CECCI), a nonprofit dedicated to empowering children and their families to create and innovate. Benadon and Young hope to begin by inspiring first the children of the Hermosa neighborhood, who are growing up on the same streets in hardworking families just as Walt and Roy did, but they’re not stopping there. “That these two amazing men came out of that average neighborhood is proof that anyone can do it,” Benadon says. “This home can be a great symbol for the neighborhood, Chicago and the American Dream.”
To learn more about how you can support the restoration project, visit The Walt Disney Birthplace.
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Editor in Chief of Better, Brooke Geiger McDonald is a Chicago native who has worked for O, The Oprah Magazine and Shape magazine in New York and for various book publishers in London. Back home in Chicago, she’s outnumbered by her husband and two sons, and the four of them are certifiable Disney and Star Wars fanatics, always counting down the days to their next Disney vacation. Her favorite nonprofits to support include The Walt Disney Birthplace in Chicago and organizations focused on environmental conservation and combatting climate change, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram: @brookegmcdonald