Saving Mr. Disney and his Birthplace Home – An Exclusive interview with Dina Benadon & Brent Young

| January 2, 2014 | Reply

Last week we posted a story about the new owners of Walt Disney’s Chicago birthplace home and their efforts to raise $500,000 on Kickstarter for the restoration. In addition to the amazing giveaways offered with each level of donation, they are offering our readers and listeners a special giveaway.  Here are the details.  We caught up with the new owners to find out why they undertook this project and to get an update on their progress.

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Walt Disney set up his first cartoon business on the second floor of the McConahay Building at 1127 East 31st Street in Kansas City, Missouri.  Despite the building being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, it’s vacant and deteriorated to the point that it was considered for demolition until a local organization, Thank You Walt Disney, Inc., stepped in and acquired the building. They are in the process of trying to restore it.

Kingswell Copy Shop CompositeComposite image of Walt and staff and the present 4659 Kingswell Avenue location
Photo: 2719Hyperion.com

In 1923, Walt headed out to California joining his older brother Roy.  Before Walt and Roy moved to the Hyperion Studios, they had smaller locations with the first in the garage of their Uncle Robert’s house. Then they moved to 4651 Kingswell Avenue, now a parking lot, and shortly after next door to 4659 Kingswell Avenue, now a photocopy store.  In 1925 they set up their first animation studio at 2719 Hyperion Avenue. Here, they created history with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi” and other great animation classics. Today you can pick up a great cheese or prime steak because this location is now a Gelson’s Supermarket.

Even though you can’t see the house from the road, Disney fans still try to peek through the gates of his former Carolwood Drive home to get a glimpse of where Walt and his family last lived.   Good luck with that.  It’s not there anymore. In its place is a 35,000 square foot mansion, which, as of June 2013, is on the market for $90 million.

Imagineering-Disney_Walt-Disney-Carolwood-Pacific-RxR_overlay_1900-1Walt Disney’s former home and the present house on Carolwood Drive
Image: ImagineeringDisney.com

We save many homes where some of our great Americans were born or lived and preserve buildings where many of their accomplishments happened, but for many, including Walt Disney, this is not the case.

Walt-and-Ruth
Ruth and Walt Disney on the front porch of 1249 Tripp Avenue (now 2156 North Tripp Avenue)
Photo: Wikipedia

The current Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland cover Walt and Roy’s past, as well as the present and future of the Company. The Walt Disney Family Museum, conceived by Walt’s late daughter, Diane Disney Miller, covers Walt as a father, husband and entertainer, however there is nothing that covers those formative years of when Walt and Roy were growing up.

dinabrentDina Benadon and Brent Young
Photo: The Walt Disney Birthplace/Facebook

In June 2013, Dina Benadon and her husband, Brent Young, Los Angeles based theme park attraction producers and founders of Super 78 Studios, purchased Walt and Roy Disney’s Chicago, Illinois home and began the long process of planning to restore it to its original splendor.

2719-and-gelsonsThe Walt Disney Studios at 2719 Hyperion
Photo: HoorayforHollywood Blog

“When we moved to Silverlake, California about 12 years ago,” said Dina. “We would do our grocery shopping at Gelson’s supermarket. When we would go in, we would always look at the one photograph of the Walt Disney animation studio, which once stood on that very location, hanging on the wall.  We would say to each other ‘I can’t believe that the studio was once here.’”

“The first week we moved into the neighborhood,” said Brent, “we went to this diner that had wood paneling and all these interesting paintings on the wall.  When we took a closer look at them we saw Marc Davis, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men, did them all. This diner had a gallery of paintings from his travels. That’s when we realized that this neighborhood was rich with Disney history and it wasn’t being preserved.”

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The first time that Brent and Dina were aware that Walt’s childhood home was for sale was a couple of years ago. “I was reading an article in the Los Angeles Times that someone bought the house on eBay and was looking to flip it,” said Brent. “I talked to Dina about it back then, but then the idea just went away.”

Years went by and Brent was doing research for another project that pertained to Disney history.  While doing research into Walt’s Chicago years, he came across his birthplace home. “I pulled up Zillow.com and saw the house was recently pulled off the market,” said Brent. “I sent a note to a childhood friend who is a real estate agent asking about it and that started the process.”

Flora_and_Elias_DisneyFlora and Elias Disney

Dina and Brent were asking the same question I had always asked, “Why hasn’t the Walt Disney Company or the family, both for whom history is very important, had any interest in acquiring and preserving this home?”  As Brent and Dina pointed out, “The other part of the story that kept getting richer and richer and motivating us to do something was that the family that lived in the home for eight years – five children plus Walt’s parents, Elias and Flora – also designed and built this house.”

In addition to building their family home, Elias’ other talents included working on building the Chicago World’s Fair, working on the railroad, he was a carpenter and he played the fiddle.  Flora was equally talented.  She designed and drew the plans for the family’s Chicago home. “This was Walt’s first home,” said Brent. “It is where many of his creative ideas started to form. The talent of their parents certainly influenced those kids in a big way.”

“We recognized that all of this, including the home, were just as important to the history of Walt and Roy Disney as their careers were,” said Brent. “Now, we are trying to get others to understand the value, the message and what all this represents.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 8.39.47 PMBrent Young and Dina Benadon with Chicago City Officials at the December 5th announcement
Photo: The Walt Disney Birthplace/Twitter

One would think that there would be push back from the neighbors, but Dina and Brent said there was not.  “There is a husband and wife living in the upstairs apartment of the house,” said Dina. “They were aware of us purchasing the house. Other people knew about it as well.  We have received positive responses from the neighborhood and when we made the announcement on December 5, 2013, both the outgoing and incoming Alderman were both there, state senators, Landmark committee members and others.”

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Dina and Brent have also set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the renovation of the house.  The restoration is not contingent upon reaching their funding goal, but they set it up because they wanted to involve the Disney fans in the process and bring them closer to Walt and Roy, as people, than they ever could before. They also set up www.thewaltdisneybirthplace.org, so fans can stay up-to-date on the house, its progress and activities and to also contribute to the storytelling of this new, untold chapter.

“The day after our announcement we met with the Landmark Commission and they gave us specific things we needed to do for them in regards to seeing the underlying fabric of the house,” said Dina.

“We are also doing the plans for the house,” said Brent. “When the winter breaks, we will do more of the major invasive construction.”

“There are no original blueprints of the house,” said Brent. “That would have been fantastic if there were, as they would have been done by Walt and Roy’s mother, Flora.  However, what we do have are some drawings that were found when we were looking around the attic.  These were architecture drawings that were done in the 1930s or 40s by a kid, supposedly who lived there.  He was studying the theory of architecture and did these for a drafting assignment for school.  He drew what he thought the single family house looked like.”

Charles Pipal, a practicing architect and professor in the Historic Preservation Program at the Art Institute of Chicago, asked which of his students wanted to participate in this project. Everyone said yes. Brent and Dina said that the students have been great. They have been meticulously documenting everything that is found in the house and they even did all of the current blueprinting.

LeftSideFrontDoorFrameLeft side front door frame of Walt Disney’s birthplace
Photo: The Walt Disney Birthplace Historical Preservation

As they slowly and carefully remove layers of flooring, plaster, siding and paint, “the house will reveal itself.” According to the website’s “Project Updates” blog, Charles Pipal and Dan Ruzic, another member of the Restoration Dream Team, wrote, “The front door likely had a full glass transom and we will be able to determine its exact size. One of the photos shows clearly the patch material and the scar of a drip cap above the door. The plaster patch inside also indicates this. Siding ran down to a skirt board at the foundation line. Much of the siding is original and the first color was likely tan or brown. The front door frame is original because all coats of paint lap from the siding onto it. We also noticed a distinction (quality, uniformity, nailing patterns) in the siding patch pieces from c1930 vs. the original siding.”

“We were very fortunate with this house,” said Brent. “Because every time it was remodeled, the new work was put on top of the old and very little of the original house was removed or destroyed.”

According to Brent, the house underwent two major changes – dealing with three eras. Originally the homes were at ground level and at some point they were lifted off the grade.  This is due, more than likely, to the fact that previously when it rained, sewage seeped into basement.

Even though Chicago has a long and rich history of architecture, especially residential architecture, from the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the architecture of this and other houses in the neighborhood were, according to Dina, “ordinary and relatively simple.”  Built in the late 1800s and early 1920s, the neighborhood looks the same.  A majority of the homes on Tripp Avenue are residential – single family homes. “They are very much farmhouse-looking,” said Brent “And at the time Elias bought the corner property, it might have been the only house on the block.  You have to remember, this was the end of the city, and technically it was the country. Tripp Avenue was the longest paved road in the city at the time. The Disney family wasn’t living on a farm, like in Marceline, but they were not living in downtown Chicago. Today, if you stood in the street you couldn’t imagine that this was at the end of Chicago at that time.”

waltchicago_churchThe former St. Paul Congregational Church (currently Iglesia Egangelica Bautista Betania)
Image: Yesterland.com/Werner Weiss

In addition to building the Disney home, Elias also built two other homes down the block and the St. Paul Congregational Church (now Iglesia Evangelica Bautista Betania).  “We also exposed some of the home’s original nails, wood, etc.,” said Brent.  “We expect Walt’s older brothers probably worked on building the house as well.”

What is fascinating to many Disney fans is that, according to a story that Alderman Rey Colon told Brent (and was verified on Wikipedia), was that L. Frank Baum was writing Mother Goose in Prose (1897) and The Wizard of Oz (1900) in a neighboring area, the Humboldt Park section, where the Disney family house was. As many Disney fans know, Walt was looking to follow-up the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, Samuel Goldwyn had already purchased the rights to the book for $60,000.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 9.59.25 PMStreet view of Tripp Avenue (The Disney house is far right)
Image: Google Maps

“One of the technical issues we will need to deal with immediately,” said Brent. “Is the additions that have been added to the home in the 1930s.” “The other challenge,” said Dina. “Is the home is still in a residential area.  We will need to figure out how to let people tour the home without so much foot traffic and what is the best way to create an amazing experience without disrupting the neighborhood.”

Given that they will have to incorporate some modern materials and construction into the house, Dina and Brent are confident that the house will be a faithful recreation of the 1893 home. “Part of the fun is that the guys doing the restoration are so into this type of work,” said Brent. “Chicago has so many historic homes and there is a great community of vendors and resources that can recreate anything to bring it to an accurate representation of what it was. There have been photos and Tim Samuelson, the Chicago Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago, took paint samples on the day of the announcement, to analyze.  When we are finished and unveil the home in December 2014, we don’t think it would be unfamiliar to Disney family.”

As far as furnishing the house, Brent and Dina said that knowing that Elias Disney was a frugal man who also made furniture.  Knowing those two facts, they believe that he would have taken all of their personal possessions, including their furniture, to Marceline, Missouri to furnish their new home.  “We will have to look at photographs of the interior of that house,” said Brent. “And faithfully recreate as much of the furniture and fixtures as we can.”

One of the things that they hope will assist them in this discovery is a link that they have on their website, “Share Your Stories.” Here they hope to have people, whose parents, grandparents, etc. lived on the block when the Disney family resided there or whose relatives knew the Disney family share their stories.  Dina said they have already had a conversation with someone in the neighborhood whose grandmother was there at the time.

Although they have not decided exactly what the program for the house will be, Dina and Brent said that they would like to blend a faithful reproduction of the actual home with a museum.  “What we’re doing now is the basement of the house,” said Brent. “We are excavating the lower level and hope to put exhibits and a theatre there and keep the house as authentic as possible. In addition, we are looking to bring some interesting projections and other elements into the house that will help people learn and know more about the house.”

“Our dream is to set something up that has a much bigger purpose than just being a little museum experience or physical brick and mortar home,” said Brent.  “We have already drawn up ideas that might ultimately include a Foundation and other ideas that will inspire children and their creativity.  What exactly that is we don’t know yet.” It’s very clear that Walt and Roy came from a creative environment and were inspired by their parents’ creativity and resourcefulness. Dina and Brent are hoping to use the house as a platform to help kids discover their own creativity.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 10.10.02 PM

The current backyard of the former Disney home (2012)
Photo: Roman Reality Group

There is very little evidence about the house’s landscaping, however Dina and Brent are hoping that they might get a little more insight from Roy’s family.  They did find out that there used to be a crab-apple tree in the backyard. They are also looking to find out if there were gas lamps on the street and if so, where were they located.

Throughout the years there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts at giving the house Landmark status. In 1970 when June Saathoff signed the papers on her new house at 2156 North Tripp Avenue (originally 1249 Tripp Avenue before the city re-addressed the neighborhood) her broker told her she just purchased Walt Disney’s birthplace.  Her response was, “If I had known then what I know now, I’d have grabbed the check out of his hand and run,” said Saathoff. “I’m supposed to be honored that Disney was born here. Well, I’m not!” Six years later, when the City Council brought up the issue of Landmark designation for only the exterior of the house, not the inside, Saathoff did not give her consent. Her reasoning was that it would be harder for her to sell the house, as the new owners would have to get the city’s approval for changes to the facade.

According to a story by Ron Grossman in the June 24, 2012 edition of The Chicago Tribune, “Several aldermen said a world without another Disney would be just fine with them. They alleged he had a reputation for anti-Semitism and racism. ‘Walt Disney was a bigot, and I’m not going to sit here on a panel and create a historical landmark for a bigot,’ said Ald. Bernard Stone, 50th, just before the Committee on Historical Landmarks voted down the proposal.”

“Over the last decade the bios that have been written on Walt Disney shows Walt wasn’t at all what these guys brought up. ,” said Brent. “Walt Disney was so focused on his art and craft  – he didn’t care about politics; he cared more about his studios overall.”

wdhouseClara Moon’s concept art of the remodeled Disney home

Although there are a lot of factors that go into getting a building landmark status, there is a lot of support for it to happen.  Besides, Walt Disney is probably the most famous person born in Chicago and the city would love to be able to promote this as well.

Like The Walt Disney Family Museum, one of the goals Dina and Brent have for the house is to educate and remind people, mostly younger ones, that Walt Disney was a person. Two brothers created the Walt Disney Company. Everything came from Walt’s imagination. Younger people look at Disney as a brand and, in some cases, don’t even know that there was an actual person who created Disneyland and Walt Disney World, as well as a vast amount of family entertainment.

“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 in the City of Chicago,” said Roy Patrick Disney, grandson to Roy O. Disney and great nephew to Walt. “The outpouring of support and excitement we’ve seen from both city officials and Disney fans alike has been simply wonderful, and this is truly a fitting way to honor both Walt and Roy O. Disney, the pioneering brothers who forever changed the face of family entertainment, and, of course, will forever be two of Chicago’s most prominent native sons.”

We couldn’t agree more, Roy Patrick.

References:

The Walt Disney Birthplace Historic Preservation Project  website
The Walt Disney Birthplace Kickstarter website
Interview with Dina Benadon and Brent Young
Jones, Chris, “Disney’s Tripp Avenue home an exhibit in the land of politics,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 2013
Sander, Ernest, “Landmark perturbation: home owner struggles with the ghost of Walt Disney,” Chicago Reader, August 22, 1991
Weiss, Werner, Yesterland.com
Wikipedia


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Category: Disney, Disney World, Disneyland, Entertainment, Events, News

About the Author ()

Originally from Philadelphia and now living in New York City, Chuck has worn many hats including pastry chef, hotel manager and his current position as a publicist. Ever since he was a kid, Chuck had a passion about everything Walt Disney including going on a local Philly quiz show when he was twelve where his area of expertise was Walt Disney. He loves going to see great performers, amazing museums, seeing Broadway shows, eating in all kinds of restaurants and traveling. Chuck's favorite cities to visit are Paris, London, Las Vegas and Turin. He, of course, loves Walt Disney World and Disneyland.