About ten minutes after June Saathoff signed the papers on her new house 21 years ago, the broker told her she had just bought the house Walt Disney was born in.
"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!"
But the Commission on Chicago Landmarks sees it differently. For almost a year, it's been taking steps to make a landmark out of Saathoff's house. The final decision is up to the City Council, which will consider the commission's recommendation sometime in the next few months.
Saathoff's simple white house on North Tripp Avenue (she says publishing the address will only generate further unwanted attention) is architecturally undistinguished, landmark commissioners agree. And it's hardly authentic--so much of it has been redone by former owners that all that remains of the original is the structural skeleton. But it was home to Disney for the first four years of his life--his family moved to Missouri in 1906--which puts it on the map and pulls Saathoff into the fray.
Lots of property owners would welcome, even pay for, the association with something old and venerable. But Saathoff says no one understands her fears: tourists trampling her property, bureaucrats deciding what's best for it, the fact that if it's designated a landmark she won't get to make any changes to the outside of her house without consulting the Landmarks Commission. Her privacy means more to her than anything, she says; the specter of her house as a landmark leaves her frustrated and tired.
Saathoff first heard from the commission in March of this year, when she received a letter saying her house was being considered for landmark status and the city wanted her consent. She refused, forcing the commission to schedule a public hearing. One was finally held in June. Among the stable of "city" witnesses at the hearing were the corporation counsel, Landmarks Commission staff members, a representative from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, and Tribune TV critic Rick Kogan. Saathoff came by herself.
At their July meeting, the nine landmark commissioners had 36 pages of minutes from the hearing to look over. Part of the commission's job is to decide which parts of buildings to landmark and for what reasons. A landmark must meet any one of seven litmus tests that rate the building's architecture, its history, its location, its designers and engineers, and its past residents, among other things, leaving lots of room for debate. Saathoff's home, with its plain interior and exterior, made for a drawn-out discussion.
Commission staffer Tim Samuelson argued in favor of landmarking the entire house. "If at some point somebody decides to make a museum out of the house, we would want to be sure that what is underneath the siding has not been disturbed," he said. "It's almost like an archaeological site." But Josue Gonzalez (no longer on the commission) thought they should stay out of the inside of Saathoff's house: "It's too intrusive. It's beyond the reach of this commission." Eventually the group agreed with Gonzalez and decided to propose that only the house's exterior be landmarked.
But Saathoff says it doesn't matter what part of her house the Landmarks Commission wants. The fact that it's interested at all, and the media coverage that interest has generated--a couple of articles in each of the dailies and a segment on Channel 32--have spurred unwanted visitors, she says. A month ago a group of 15 schoolkids and their teacher stopped by to see the inside of the "Disney museum." Saathoff explained to them that none existed. The teacher said she had read about it in the newspaper.
A few days later a child came by the house asking if she could see where Mickey Mouse was born. And recently a friend told Saathoff that a local radio station had mentioned the house as the site of a Disney museum.
"They're forgetting this is my house. It isn't theirs!" she says. "It's not a museum; it's not a public place. It's my home."
"We're not taking anything away from her. It's her house," said Joan Pomaranc, assistant to the director of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. "If it is landmarked, absolutely nothing will change."
But some things will change. Landmark owners can only make changes on their property with the approval of the Landmarks Commission, which has the right to deny a change it thinks might "work against preservation of what's there."
Pomaranc says only about 2 in every 200 building-permit applications are rejected by the commission. Most of the time, she says, the commission and the landmark owner discuss "mutual needs" and strike compromises. The commission cannot force landmark owners to make changes that would increase the historic value of a property; it can only turn down proposals that destroy its present historic worth.
If Saathoff wanted to make a two-story addition, for example, or add a very modern porch, Pomaranc says that would be a problem, but not an unsolvable one. The rule doesn't apply to changes like painting the exterior, and it doesn't keep the owner from selling when and to whom she wants.
Saathoff is worried that because of the Landmarks Commission's emphasis on historically correct changes, it's going to cost her more to maintain the house once it's landmarked. Maybe, but landmark status will make up for that in other ways, says Vince Michael, Chicago programs director for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. At the hearing in June he pointed out the various financial benefits Saathoff could reap from landmark status: the preservation tax freeze, the easement donation, and the federal rehabilitation tax credit.
To get them, though, Saathoff would have to make changes to her house. Tapping into the preservation tax freeze, for example, would require that Saathoff renovate her house to the tune of one-quarter of the property's assessed value. Federal rehabilitation tax credits apply only to "income-producing" properties, which means Saathoff would get them only if she rented out part of her house. The theory, says Pomaranc, is that "if you want a tax break, you have to give something to the people. You have to earn it." The easement tax break, on the other hand, applies only if Saathoff agrees not to make any changes that would increase the value of her property.
Michael also said landmark status generally "adds a cachet to the property. A little historic value goes a long way." But local realtors say landmark status would do nothing to increase the actual value of Saathoff's house.
"If you have one landmark house and nothing else around it, it doesn't make any [positive] difference," said one realtor who didn't want his name used. "It would generate a lot of attention, though."
"People who buy in that area are not interested in that kind of status," said another. "I think it might hurt the salability."
"It's much more expensive to preserve it," says a third, referring to the restrictions imposed on landmark owners who want to make changes to their property. "Valuewise that's the disadvantage."
While the landmark question climbs the governmental ladder, Saathoff can do little but watch. She had her say at the public hearing, and her lone hope now seems to be 30th Ward Alderman Carole Bialczak, who presented Saathoff's side of the story at the July commissioner's meeting. It's up to Bialczak to convince her colleagues that the Disney landmark item should be "at the forefront of their concern"--it's possible that the issue won't come up in City Council meetings for months, and Saathoff thinks that until it's decided she'll have to keep putting up with hordes of visitors. More important, of course, Bialczak has to convince the Council to vote her way.
If the City Council opts to landmark her house, Saathoff may have reached the end of the line. No one has successfully challenged the city's legal right to designate landmarks, and Saathoff says she doesn't have the money for a lawyer anyway.
Saathoff says she can't remember many days over the past two decades she didn't spend working around her house and in the garden. The front yard is filled with flowers and trees: cosmos, roses, snapdragons, evergreens, yuccas. She says she doesn't know all the names, but she planted each one. Behind the house are more of the same.
"There's nothing left from Disney," says Stella Syzmanski, who, with her mother and father, has lived in the house behind Saathoff's since 1954. The house is "all her personality" now, she says. "What's there to show in her house? If there was something to see I could understand it."
As Rick Kogan said at the public hearing, the focus of any Disney memorial ought to be circulating the "knowledge of him," "inspiring the Walt Disney of the next century." Simply making a landmark out of the building where he spent a few years as a kid seems to miss the point.
"This is what a lot of people look forward to," says Santa Fiores, another neighbor, sweeping her hand across the air to indicate the garden. "They work hard so they can retire and be left alone."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.