Stewart McLaurin, 58, is the president of the White House Historical Association, which was founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961.
What’s the mission of the White House Historical Association?
A lot of people who have been in Washington a long time know us one-dimensionally. They know us as the White House Christmas ornament people. And as wonderful as that ornament has been to support our work, that’s not our mission. Our mission is to provide support to the White House for conservation, restoration and preservation of the state rooms and to acquire art and furnishings for the permanent White House collection. But we also have a mission — and this was important to Mrs. Kennedy — and that is to teach and tell the story of the White House and its history. I love the ornament, but there’s a lot of things in life besides the ornament.
The White House is kind of a fortress now, but that wasn’t always the case.
The first fence was added by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, and the fences have had an evolution over time to what they are today. Even though security is a priority, it’s still important that the house is seen and you can walk right up to the fence. The White House visitors office does a terrific job of keeping the White House accessible. About 500,000 people a year have the opportunity to go through it.
Which occupant has caused the most damage?
The most damage? Well, unfortunately, under James Madison is when the British came and burned the house, so you can’t get more damage than that. But I think every single president has taken pride in the house and in some way left their mark or contribution.
How much of the White House was built by people who were slaves?
There were enslaved persons who worked on the White House. We don’t have a full list of their names because they were hired through their owners, and they were not slaves to the White House. The White House didn’t own the slaves. There was a percentage of enslaved workers, but there were also freed African American workers who worked on the house, and there were other immigrant laborers who worked on the house.
Is there any kind of memorial or notice of that in the White House?
Not that I’m aware of.
What is a fact about the White House that everyone gets wrong?
I think most people are surprised with how small the footprint of the real estate is. Although it's situated on 18 acres, the house itself is rather small. We think of it as grand because billions of people around the world know that house is a symbol of American freedom and democracy.
Have there ever been efforts to move the White House?
Sure, after the War of 1812 and at other times during the Civil War, when there were concerns about the president's safety. There were efforts to move it up into Rock Creek Park and to Meridian Hill, but those were always resisted.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about the White House?
Well, the thing that I love about my job is that I could work here for the rest of my life and not know everything there is to know. So I learn something new each and every day in unexpected ways, whether it’s something about a work of art or something that happened or about one of the presidents’ pets. It’s not any one thing, but it’s the magnitude of history that has taken place within the walls of that house.
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