ANNAPOLIS – At first glance, Claire McLean’s Presidential Pet Museum appears to be another antique store on Maryland Avenue – full of Richard Nixon bobbleheads and Scottish terrier knick knacks. But if you look pass the kitsch, listen to McLean’s White House pet trivia and add a little imagination, it can be an experience like no other.
“Pauline Wayne was the last cow to graze on the lawn of the White House,” McLean said in discussing a cowbell that was donated to the pet museum. “She belonged to (William) Howard Taft, one of the fattest presidents. He drank a lot of milk from Pauline.”
McLean said that she believes the bell once adorned Pauline because the man who donated it wrote that it once belonged in the White House.
“Sorry, there’s no way of authenticating it, but it could be the cow bell,” McLean said pointing to a photograph of the cow on the White House lawn with a bell around its neck.
McLean is a virtual repository of White House pet facts, rattling them off one after another.
John Quincy Adams had an alligator. Calvin Coolidge kept raccoons. At various times, exotic animals like tigers and bears have roamed the White House lawn.
Some pets have given their owners a run in the popularity department. Harry S Truman was given a lovely cocker spaniel, Feller, but he gave it away. This made the public angry because they thought he did not like pets.
During his impeachment, Bill Clinton often said his only friends in Washington were his cat, Socks, and his dog, Buddy.
And today, McLean said, “we have Barney Bush and Miss Beazley, two pure-bred Scottish terriers that rule the White House and are probably more popular right now than the president.
The 73-year-old retiree’s love of all things presidential and furry began in 1985 when she received a phone call from the White House asking her to groom President Ronald Reagan’s dog, Lucky.
McLean said the pooch was named after Nancy Reagan’s mother Edith Luckette who was nicknamed Lucky. McLean said she was called to groom the dog because she bred dogs of Lucky’s breed, Bovier des Flandres, commonly known as French sheepdogs.
The visit to the White House awed McLean and inspired her to create a pet museum in honor of the presidency. McLean is enamored by the presidency and her infatuation is apparent in her collection and sometimes even her jewelry – she wears American flag earrings when she goes out.
“My mother had this love for the presidency and I think it was passed on to me,” McLean said peering over her plastic-framed glasses. “I went to the White House and it changed my life. Some people are nonchalant when it comes to the presidency, but others are inspired by any association with greatness.”
McLean saved some of the dog hair from grooming the Reagans’ Lucky, and her mother, Dorothy Fenn de Silva, made a portrait of Lucky using the dog’s real fur. This was the beginning of McLean’s presidential pet collection.
The walls of the small shop are lined with presidential kitsch: a “Vote for Bush” sign, a Jimmy Carter banner, presidents’ portraits – with or without pets – and framed letters McLean and her mother have received from presidents or their wives.
Some letters thank McLean for gifts she sent to the White House. A thank you note from Laura Bush is signed by the First Lady and co-signed by both the Bush dogs, represented by their paw prints.
Another Bush item in the collection is a portrait McLean created of Miss Beazley. McLean lined the portrait of the terrier with fur donated by the dog’s official White House groomer, Helen Krisko.
McLean has only recently moved her museum from a renovated barn in Lothian, in southern Anne Arundel County, where she originally opened in 1998, to boutique-lined Maryland Ave., barely a block from the State House. The museum opens Jan. 19, with the official opening on President’s Day, but the quirky combination of pets and presidents has already piqued the curiosity of neighboring business owners and passersby.
The presidential pet museum is in a building next to a fine art gallery, DMG Artwork, which was opened by Debra Graleski in April of last year. Graleski says it’s too early to tell whether the pet museum will fit in well with the other businesses on the street – among them some high-end retail stores, antique and curio shops, a tobacconist and one of the Irish pubs now ubiquitous in Annapolis.
“It’s hard to say if the store fits-in because it’s so different,” Graeleski said tactfully. “It’s out-of -the ordinary – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Another neighbor, Joyce Kaminkow, has been the owner of the Annapolis Country Store on Maryland Ave. since 1970. She said the pet museum is right at home on street.
“There certainly is not anything like it,” she said. “I think it’s quirky, but I have been on Maryland Avenue for 36 years and there are a lot of quirky stores on Maryland Avenue so it fits right in.”
Judy Rourke, a customer in Kaminkow’s gift shop, said she comes to Maryland Avenue looking for unusual gifts. She also offers the view that since Annapolis is a political center, the pet museum should find an audience.
“I would visit (the pet museum) because I worked as a spouse in politics,” she said. “I find politics fascinating, especially the behind-the-scenes stuff.”
McLean loves the attention the museum gets just for being different. With no background in museum management or retail, she is content to live her dream of running a pet museum that pays homage to the nation’s highest office. She plans to improve the museum – one pet fact at a time. “I could retire for real and play canasta but getting on Maryland Avenue is a reality check, she said.” I’ve got to learn more trivia and detail.”