The Return of the Big Chair: A Very Big Deal

A crowd at V Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE ogles the big chair, made of 2,600 pounds of aluminum.
A crowd at V Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE ogles the big chair, made of 2,600 pounds of aluminum. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A minister offered prayers. Politicians and civic leaders doled out testimonials. And there were more than a few attempts to use the occasion to declare that a long-blighted part of Southeast Washington was inching toward a renaissance.

But most of the people who watched the return of the big chair to Anacostia yesterday only wanted to talk about what the neighborhood landmark has meant to their lives.

They remembered it as a singular geographic marker, as in "Take a left at the big chair," or the place where they saw an oversized Santa Claus sitting atop the seat at Christmastime. And they recalled it as the place where they saw a lady living atop it for more than 40 days as a promotional stunt.

"We watched her for hours," said Janice Larsen, 56, a retired budget analyst, holding her digital camera as she stood in the crowd, near V Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

"We were kids, and we didn't have much else," Larsen said. "It's part of Anacostia; it's part of our roots here."

Built of mahogany in 1959, the chair rotted over the years and was dismantled last August, after coming perilously close to collapse. The owner, Curtis Properties Inc., introduced a rebuilt version yesterday, constructed from brown-painted aluminum.

Those gathered for the unveiling whooped and hollered and snapped photographs when its owners yanked a blue-and-white-striped cover to show it off.

"Yes, the big chair is back, and it's better than ever," said Derrick Simpson, 39, a pipe fitter, squinting up at the hulking structure that he and his pals spent hours trying to scale as youngsters.

"It's history," Simpson said. "I've lived in the neighborhood all my life, and this has always been here."

During the rededication ceremony, civic leaders and political types evoked the chair's rebirth to talk of the long-struggling neighborhood's aspirations. The Rev. Willie Wilson, an Anacostia pastor, offered a prayer in which he suggested that the chair represents a "seat at the table where all of us can come together."

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said the chair "symbolizes revitalization and renewal" before listing a few nearby economic development projects.

But most of the crowd seemed more interested in reminiscing.

"I missed it when it was gone," said Theresa Lucas, 57, a day-care teacher. "I've seen Cinderella up there. And Alice in Wonderland. And Santa Claus. It has to be here. It's part of this area."

It was Charles Curtis, the brother of the company's president, George, who conceived of the chair -- a replica of a Duncan Phyfe model -- as a way to draw customers to the family's furniture showroom.

As he sat in the crowd yesterday, Charles Curtis recalled that no matter what the neighborhood's condition was, the chair endured, in part because the community was so attached to it. During the 1968 riots, he said, "no one laid a hand on the chair. They had respect for it."

If he was saddened that the new chair is not made of mahogany, Curtis said he is pleased that it matches the original in appearance.

"And it will stay there for 100 years," he said.

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