Dina Benadon and Brent Young were interviewed by Judith Rubin about their new project to restore and preserve the childhood home of
Walt Disney, in Chicago. The project launched officially with a press conference at the site on Dec. 5, 2013, the 112th anniversary of Walt’s birth. As part of the celebration, Mayor Emanuel proclaimed it Walt Disney Day in Chicago.
Most Chicagoans are meeting Benadon and Young for the first time in the context of this project, but the pair, who are husband and wife as well as business partners, are well-known in the themed entertainment industry for their work on a variety of special venue cinema attractions with their company Super 78.
More information about the project is available at www.thewaltdisneybirthplace.org.
What is the next step?
Dina: At this point, we’re focused on saving and restoring the home. We have put together a great team that includes historical preservation consultant Tim Barton, the Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago, Tim Samuelson and preservation architect and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Charles Pipal – in addition to creatives and designers in Los Angeles.
What kind of response have you had from the neighbors?
Brent: Our interaction with the community has been positive and has included some great emails from kids in the neighborhood. This is an everyday, working class neighborhood and we’re not looking to disrupt that.
What is the vision for creating a guest experience in the home once it is restored?
Brent: It will be an intimate experience. We want to create a time machine using state-of-the-art technology to transport you back to 1901 and make you feel part of the Disney family.
Will you be putting your media production skills to work?
Brent: Yes, we want to use sound and projection technology and apply what we’ve done over the years.
What have you done on the home so far?
Brent: We’ve done forensic work on the home, and one of the things we did as part of the celebration on December 5th
was to reveal the original siding. Under the aluminum siding is the original wood siding that Elias Disney put up himself. We’ve also taken samples of the original paint, and of the original cedar shake roof, which is still there underneath asphalt shingles. The original brick chimney that runs through the center of the house is also still there. The house that Elias built is all there – it’s just been covered up.
Brent, you’re a native of Chicago. Is this close to where you grew up?
Brent: I grew up about 30 miles to the west, in the cornfields. The house is in in Chicago proper, in the 35th ward, in a little known neighborhood called Hermosa.
Your company, Super 78, first made its mark in media production. Is this an expansion of your business direction?
Dina: Yes and no. About 6 years ago, we branched out into attraction design. It was part of our evolution. Our talent is in the creative and development space, and this project is a natural progression for us.
Brent was doing some research on a project, came across the home, and asked a real estate agent to look into it. It wasn’t listed for sale,
but the owners were interested in selling it. They manage property in the neighborhood and were aware of the home’s history. They wanted to see something appropriate done with it.
Were Walt and Roy actually born in the house?
Dina: Yes, both Walt and Roy came into the world through home births in that house. We have an historical affidavit documenting it. The family lived there for 12 years.
How has the Disney family responded?
Dina: Roy P. Disney has endorsed the project and is supportive. We reached out to the family and they are aware of everything we are
How is the project being funded?
Brent: Most of the restoration is being funded by us; we’ve set up WDB Restorations LLC. We are using Kickstarter to engage the community and raise a portion of the money. We are also reaching out for corporate sponsorship. We estimate a budget of some $500,000 will get the home to landmark status.
What does this project mean to you, personally and professionally?
Dina: When we look at our careers and where our lives are, this feels like the natural next step – a way to give back to the community and the industry that has given us so much.
Brent: Two extraordinary people – Walt and Roy Disney – were born in the home. Walt Disney is arguably the most famous person ever
born in the city of Chicago. This is a typical home of that time period but very few if any of its counterparts in Chicago
have been given landmark status, so there’s the benefit that this draws attention to this genre of architecture.
So there’s the juxtaposition of extraordinary people who began their lives in a very ordinary home.
Brent: It’s a fascinating story. Walt’s father Elias built the house with his own hands. Walt’s mother, Flora, was the architect. There are two other houses on the same street, and a church around the corner, that Elias also built.
Flora and Elias met and married in Kissimee, Florida – which we all know is right next to Walt Disney World. They moved to Chicago because Elias got a job as a laborer/contractor on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. They had two boys at the time; Flora was pregnant with Roy, and Elias took the skills acquired from helping to build the world expo, and became a small-scale contractor. In Disneyland today, you can look up and see the Elias Disney window on Main Street – it reads, “Elias Disney, contractor.”