The National Park Service manages 16 presidential homes, including Abraham Lincoln’s house in Springfield, Illinois, and FDR’s in Hyde Park, New York—each of which has six-figure annual attendance and could probably get by without government help. (Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo in California is owned by the Young America’s Foundation, which uses it as a center to promote conservative ideals. The Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, which receives 400,000 visitors a year, is jointly run by the National Archives and the Reagan Foundation.) There are at least 20 other presidential homes besides Reagan’s that are run by private foundations, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Buchanan’s Wheatland and Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage. Most survive on a mixture of tourist dollars and local investment.
But among presidential attractions, childhood homes like Reagan’s are not in the same league as Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The best known—JFK’s birthplace in Brookline, Massachusetts—is a Park Service property that receives about 25,000 visitors a year, less than a 10th of the traffic at Kennedy’s presidential library in Boston.
It doesn’t help the Reagan home that Illinois is not the state most Americans associate with the 40th president, and Dixon is not a major population center. The town also doesn’t have much to offer visitors other than Reagan. (It does have a lot of Reagan, though: a History and Learning Center; Reagan statues; a Reagan museum; his original lifeguard chair. There’s also a Ronald Reagan Middle School.)
“It has less to do with presidencies and more to do with the tourist business,” says Hugh Howard, author of Homes of the Presidents. “If you go to Charlottesville, which is a fun place, you can’t not go to Monticello.”
One of the main reasons the boyhood home foundation could maintain the Reaganite principle of independence from government for so long was Norm Wymbs, a Florida grocery store magnate who knew Reagan personally and was the home’s biggest benefactor—a “sugar daddy,” in the words of staffers and board members. Wymbs idolized Reagan—he even wrote a book about the president’s years in Dixon—and spent $5 million to restore the house to its 1920s look and build a visitor center. Shortly before his death, he deeded a home he owned in Dixon to the foundation, which sold it in 2013 to a private buyer for $270,000 (the source of the $172,000 profit cited in Coburn’s 2013 report, according to a foundation board member).
That money was used to purchase four small houses near the boyhood home as part of a since-abandoned expansion plan. Wymbs—who called Hastert’s 2002 allocation of $420,000 to buy the home “insulting,” because it didn’t approach his investment over the years—died in 2016, leaving the Reagan home to support itself.
As Reagan has receded into history, attendance has fallen to 5,000 visitors per year. In 2016, finding the home in a state of decrepitude, Gorman took out a $100,000 line of credit. A retired nuclear power plant mechanic, Gorman went a year without taking a salary, but the home was still losing $20,000 to $25,000 annually. Although a pair of $25,000 donations from a local charity will help pay off the line of credit, no one has stepped forward to replace the home’s sugar daddy. Last year, Reagan’s post-presidential secretary, Peggy Grande, came to Dixon for a fundraiser; it netted only $7,500.
When Gorman told the board of directors that he was seeking a Park Service takeover, this time, there was no pushback. Everyone realized the home could no longer raise enough money to remain open.
“It’s the only move,” says Joe Rudolphi, the board’s treasurer. “I don’t think we have much choice, unless we can find someone in Chicago to support us. We need to put a new roof on the house. That’s going to cost thirty, thirty-five thousand dollars. You look at an old house, an old property—it’s a money pit.”
Hastert’s act of Congress establishing a Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home National Historic Site is still in effect, but the appropriation to buy the house has expired. The Park Service is aware of the foundation’s desire to sell, and is working to arrange for an appraisal, says Brent Everitt, a spokesperson for the National Park Service: “Once the due diligence process is completed, the NPS would likely begin the process of developing a land acquisition budget request through Congress.”
Dixon’s current congressman, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, “supports the National Park Service purchasing the site,” he said through a spokesperson. This time, the money to honor Reagan will have to come from a Democratic Congress. One factor in the home’s favor, however: The Park Service can name its own price.