Alabama People: Stewart McLaurin
Preserving White House history
Alabama native Stewart McLaurin is in his fifth year as president of the White House Historical Association, the non-profit, non-partisan educational organization whose many projects include production of the annual White House Ornament at Christmas time. He was formerly vice president for development at Mt. Vernon, and has held senior positions at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, the Motion Picture Association, Georgetown University, American Red Cross and the Department of Energy. McLaurin, a proud graduate of Shades Valley High School in Birmingham and the University of Alabama where he studied American history and political science, is an avid Tide fan who travels back to Tuscaloosa for home football games. He was eager to talk with us about this year’s White House ornament in time for the holidays. – Lenore Vickrey
How did you come to be involved with the White House Historical Association?
I had known about their work the entire time I’d been in Washington. I started collecting the ornaments when I moved here in 1983. They began in 1981 and I bought the first two to catch up, and now have a complete set. Back then I didn’t know all the other things the association did, and I also knew that the person who’d led the association had been there many years, 22 years when I took over. It wasn’t a job that came open that often, and earlier in my career I wouldn’t have been in a position to take on that opportunity.
Tell us about the ornaments.
They’re very collectible but they’re also teaching tools. Each is designed to tell the story of the White House during a specific presidency. They started in 1981 with Washington. Mrs. Reagan decided that we would feature each president sequentially. That was a very wise decision on her part because it took politics out of the game. Now we’re up to Truman this year (with a few pauses every few years for special recognitions like the bicentennial of the White House in 1989).
How far in advance are the designs done?
We’re about to finalize the 2019 ornament, so the design of the ornament is about six months before its release on Presidents Day weekend. We do that at the site of the presidential library of the president, so for 2018 we were in Independence, Missouri for Truman, and in 2019 we will be in Abilene, Kansas for President Eisenhower. The ornaments are made here in the United States by a company founded by an American service veteran in Rhode Island.
How does that work?
It’s a very complicated process. It has to stay a certain weight so the postage stays the same. It’s coated metal so there is some weight and substance to them. Each one is hand made. There’s a machinery process that cuts the pieces from the metal and coats them with the colors they have to have, but all the assembly is done by hand. If you go to the plant you’ll see multiple rooms in assembly lines with people putting on different parts, polishing parts, assembling elements, attaching the ribbon, putting it in the boxes. It’s quite a detailed process all done by hand.
Besides by mail order, where else can you buy the ornaments?
We have three stores in Washington, DC that sell them. We send out a catalog in the fall with ornaments and other education-oriented products. Many post offices also sell them. Church groups, scout groups and others buy them in bulk at a discount and sell them as fundraisers.
In addition to the ornaments, what else does the Association do?
It was founded by Jackie Kennedy in 1961. She thought the White House should represent the best of American furnishings and decorative arts. She knew she would need a private partner to do that, so she created us to be that partner. We teach and tell the story of the White House through many educational programs, teacher institutes, partnerships with other organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs. We publish books and a quarterly magazine, have public program, lectures and symposiums.
Why is this history important today?
So much of American history has taken place in the White House or impacted those who’ve lived and worked there. Early inventions were deployed and tried at the White House. President Wilson signed the declaration of war in World War I there. So many things have happened in that house, times of mourning and grief. Eight presidents have died in office. On the other side of that coin, it has been the site of weddings (18, according to the association website), and it has been the home of the president and his family. I could work here the rest of my life and not know all there is to know.