The Big Chair, Rebuilt to Last

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

Not a week passes without a stranger asking Anacostia security guard Bunmi Fadairo what might seem like an odd question.

What happened to the chair?

In this Southeast Washington neighborhood, there is only one chair -- the big chair, the 19 1/2 -foot-tall landmark that was dismantled last summer after 46 years on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Tired of explaining that it had become old and rotted, Fadairo sometimes likes to joke that thieves lifted the chair off its pedestal and took off in the dead of night.

"And sometimes they believe me," he said, laughing at the idea of a gang running away with 4,600 pounds of mahogany on their backs.

Soon there won't be any more questions. After an eight-month absence -- an eternity for those who relied on it as a marker to navigate the world -- the chair is returning, rebuilt to last generations.

A ceremony is planned for April 25, when the chair's owner, Curtis Properties Inc., will unveil it before 250 invited guests, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).

What they will see is a structure identical in size and color to the original, a perfectly proportioned model of a Duncan Phyfe dining room chair.

But instead of mahogany, used to make the original, the new chair, including the cushion, is aluminum -- a material expected to require minimal maintenance.

"It will outlive all of us," said John Kidwell, the original chair's caretaker for more than three decades.

Although the chair's rebirth in metal may seem sacrilegious to some, many say they will be happy to see it back in any form at V Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

"If you didn't know nothing about Southeast, you knew about the big chair," said Robert Bethea, 55, a consultant who lives in Shaw but regularly visits his doctor in Anacostia. He described himself as having been "a little lost not having it around."

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