Charles Curtis, 82; Businessman Brought Big Chair to Anacostia

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Charles Wendell Curtis, the man who brought the 19 1/2 -foot-high mahogany chair to Anacostia in 1959 and created a lasting landmark, has died. He was 82.

Mr. Curtis, who died March 29 at Suburban Hospital of a heart attack after a fall, initially was looking for a way to lure customers into his family's furniture showroom at what is now V Street and Martin Luther King Avenue SE. He commissioned Bassett Furniture Industries in North Carolina to build the 4,600-pound version of a Duncan Phyfe dining room chair and had it delivered on a flatbed truck.

Touted as the "the world's largest chair," the hefty seat immediately became a neighborhood attraction. A young woman spent 42 days atop the chair in a glass booth with a balcony. A larger-than-life Santa Claus perched there and waved to passersby. The chair survived the 1968 riots unscathed, and when weather took its toll, it was rebuilt, this time from aluminum.

In March 2006, Mr. Curtis watched as the rebuilt chair was unveiled. He recalled that no matter how the neighborhood changed, the chair endured, in part because the community was attached to it.

"No one laid a hand on the chair" during the riots, he told The Washington Post. "They had respect for it."

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

A Washington native, Mr. Curtis had long ties to Southeast Washington, where his family's furniture business opened in 1926. He attended elementary school there and graduated from Anacostia High School in 1942. During World War II, he became a pilot in the Army Air Forces, and he remained in the Air Force Reserve for 10 years.

He received a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1949 and spent a year at Georgetown University law school.

After graduating from college, he joined Curtis Bros. Furniture as a sales manager and rose to general manager before serving as president. In the early 1960s, he spent a year as national advertising manager for Kroehler Manufacturing Co. He was national merchandising manager at Simmons Co. from 1974 to 1983, when he retired.

Always looking for ways to promote the family business, Mr. Curtis decided in 1960 to have a 10-by-10-foot glass booth built and placed on the big chair. He hired a 19-year-old woman to live there.

"Every few hours she would slip out onto the balcony to wave to crowds drawn by newspaper and radio ads that invited them to see 'Alice in the "Looking Glass" House' and guess how long she could remain up there," The Post reported.

Mr. Curtis, a resident of Brandywine for 62 years before moving to Leesburg last year, was involved in civic activities. He was area chairman of the Greater Washington Chapter of the Leukemia Society of America, director of the German Orphan Home, president of the Anacostia Lions Club, vice president and director of the National Home Furnishings Association, director of the Franklin Savings & Loan Association in Washington and a member of the retail committee of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

His marriage to Dorothy McLean Curtis ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Hilda F. Curtis of Leesburg; six children from his first marriage, Pamela Rizzo of Fort Washington, Carol Lee Curtis of Vail, Colo., Barbara Jedrey of Davidsonville, Md., Charles W. Curtis Jr. of Severna Park, Robert Curtis of Denver and Rena I. Curtis of Leesburg; two stepchildren, Sherrie Everett of McLean and John P. Everett III of Springfield; a sister, Patricia Brooks of New Carrollton; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company