Looking back, looking forward: Maryland changemakers in black history

Timonium man has fond memories of his contribution to presidential inaugurations

Towson Times
Timonium man has fond memories of his contribution to inaugurations of three presidents

As the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump approaches, Don Bonnett retains fresh memories of an earlier inauguration — that of President Ronald Reagan's first term, on Jan. 21, 1981.

Bonnett's pride stems from a collaborative effort in which he played a part in designing the presidential reviewing stand upon which Reagan and his successors, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, took the oath of office. That pride is evident today in the way the longtime Timonium resident talks about the work he did to make those events successes.

The first Reagan inauguration, though, is the one that stands out for the 71-year-old Bonnet, who at the time was hired by Frank Fields of Associated Builders, a construction company in Hyattsville, Md., to design a reviewing stand that mimicked the one used for President John F. Kennedy's inaugural in 1961.

However, while the stands used for Kennedy's swearing-in had been made of wood, Reagan's was to be made of steel, in part to make them safer.

"We had the contract for building the stands going back to the second President [Richard] Nixon's inauguration," said Fields, who was an Associated Builders vice president when he hired Bonnett. Associated Builders has assembled the stand from the ground up for every inauguration since Reagan's in 1981, and have done so for Trump's, which is Friday.

In 1981, Bonnett, then 39, was the district manager for Armco Building Systems, a subsidiary of the now-defunct Armco Steel Corp., which specialized in constructing steel structures. His job was to manage and recruit authorized contractors and promote the sale of buildings to architects, engineers, developers, local governments and private companies.

"I was the guy out in the field who had to coordinate everything in terms of engineering and design back to our home office," he said. "I had to be creative in how to figure out how to make a wooden structure into a metal structure and relate it to our engineering department."

Fields knew that Bonnett had plenty of experience in the steel business and was "easy to work with," he said.

"He was a very spirited guy, and he knew what he was doing," added Fields, who has been retired for nearly 20 years. "It was a great team effort with me, Don and our architects."

"Don and Frank were instrumental in converting the structure from wood to a pre-engineered steel building, which saved a lot of time and money," said Michael Buck, the president of Associated Builders, Inc.

Because he backed Reagan in that election, Bonnett felt an extra sense of accomplishment for his part in the proceedings, he said.

He had a great view of the presidential entourage from his vantage point in the media stands in Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the president's reviewing stand, which is situated with its back to the White House.

"We had great seats and it was the most memorable one for me," said Bonnett, 71, who since 2013 has been the co-owner of Maryland Sales and Marketing Associates, a business consulting company he runs with his daughter, Margie Anne. "It was a thrill for me to see the president and his wife, Nancy, get out of the car and go into the stands."

Twenty tons of steel

One of Bonnett's goals was to make sure the new steel structure would resemble the older, wooden one.

To that end, he used the plans from the Kennedy inauguration stands to get its basic parameters and transform it into metal.

One immediate benefit to using nearly 20 tons of steel in the project was improved security, Bonnett said.

The 56 cubic feet of concrete used to stabilize the 14 supporting steel columns provided an extra layer of protection from anyone inclined to crash a vehicle into the stands, making it a popular choice for the United States Secret Service, Bonnett said

"The Secret Service really liked the idea that the stands were raised [from sidewalk level] by 4 feet of concrete instead of 4 feet of wood," he added,

There were other reasons why using steel made more sense than wood, including the elimination of interior support columns, which added as many as 20 unobstructed-view seats. Because steel is stronger than wood, those columns weren't needed to support the roof.

"Nancy [Reagan] was particularly happy about that," Bonnet said.

Despite all the benefits of using steel, Bonnett still found himself jumping through plenty of hoops to get approval for the stand from a variety of federal and local government and other agencies.

He attended meetings with representatives from organizations ranging from the Secret Service to the United States Park Police and the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., all of which had to sign off on the project before it could move forward.

Procuring those approvals were part and parcel of a hectic couple of weeks for Bonnett, who was given an extremely short deadline to complete the $250,000 structure, which he estimated would cost between $750,000 and $800,000 today.

Meeting a deadline

After getting the nod from the authorities, Bonnett wasted little time in ordering the steel, which was sent by truck from Ohio to the White House. In a process that typically takes at least six to eight weeks from order to delivery, Bonnett's was expedited to just two.

The nature of a pre-engineered structure — built by using standard sections and connections to make building simpler and quicker — allowed Bonnett to meet his deadline.

It also has helped to keep costs down over ensuing inaugurations, given that the same materials can be used over and over, Buck said.

That is the case for Trump's viewing stand, which will use the same steel structure that Bonnett helped to implement in 1985 for Reagan's second inauguration.

In 1985, though, freezing temperatures, including wind chills of minus 22 degrees, forced the inauguration proceedings to be moved indoors to the Capital Centre in Landover, according to media sources from the time.

Bonnett said he drove to Washington on the following day to see the structure nonetheless.

"I went just to see the stands for the last time and talk to the people who worked so hard to get the job done," he said.

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