Woman's presidential pastime closes its doors in Annapolis

Downtown pet museum sends exhibits to Presidents Park in Williamsburg, Va.

January 27, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,SUN REPORTER

The Presidential Pet Museum, with artifacts such as shaggy locks of hair from President Ronald Reagan's Bouvier des Flandres, Lucky, and a painting of President Bill Clinton's chocolate Labrador, Buddy, has gone south.

The quirky downtown Annapolis attraction closed shop and sent its exhibits to Presidents Park, an equally quirky museum in Williamsburg, Va., featuring 18-foot-tall busts of the 43 U.S. presidents.

Claire McLean, who began the pet museum on the grounds of her Lothian farmhouse in 1999 and moved it to a tiny Maryland Avenue storefront a year ago, said she didn't make the decision lightly.

"Now the museum will have more room," said McLean, 74, who closed the museum last month. "I loved my little store. It was too crowded. People wanted to buy the artifacts. The rent was high. I didn't have enough help, and my daughter is ill. But it's going to continue on, and people can go see it there."

Everette H. Newman III, developer of Presidents Park, which features exhibits on little-known presidential facts - such as which commander-in-chief was ambidextrous - said the pet memorabilia will gel with her collection nicely.

"It goes into those things that people normally don't know," Newman said. "And it just increases the knowledge in presidents."

McLean, who described herself as deeply patriotic and a pet lover, began her odyssey into presidential pet research after she read White House Pets, written in 1969 by Margaret Truman, the daughter of President Harry S. Truman.

Since then, she's collected books and photos and painted 50 or so folk-art portraits of the presidents and their pets, as a tribute to the country and animals. Martin Van Buren had a tiger; William Howard Taft, a cow; and John Adams, an alligator, she said.

What began as a job grooming the "first dog" launched the museum. McLean first groomed Lucky in 1985, after she was contacted by the White House horticulturist, who knew that she bred the herding dogs.

"[The horticulturist and a Secret Service agent] drove out to my place in Deale," McLean said. "They wanted to keep it pretty secret because Mr. Reagan, the president, didn't like people making publicity out of such events, because then the dog could be in jeopardy of being kidnapped or something like that."

She soon began grooming the dog regularly.

"It was exciting and nervewracking," McLean said. "That kind of an invitation is exciting. It kind of changed my life forever. I took the hair of the dog and gave it to my mother and she turned it into a portrait. And that became the cornerstone of the museum."

She never met the first couple but did hear some feedback after one of Lucky's hair-cutting sessions in advance of an official White House photo.

"I heard that [first lady] Nancy [Reagan] thought that I cut too much hair off," McLean said.

After the traffic death of Clinton's dog Buddy in 2002, McLean appeared on NBC Nightly News and Good Morning America and talked about the collection. Soon, tour buses lined up at her 6-acre property, where she'd opened the museum in a barn.

She kept it going on a shoestring budget, and after selling her home in Lothian and moving to an Annapolis condominium, she opened up the museum last January, steps from the Maryland State House.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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