Amid the Furnishings, a Supplier of Goods, Gibes and Generosity

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

You may have wandered into his place when you were young and broke and looking for a couch or kitchen table that wouldn't consume your entire paycheck. Or on lunch break from jury duty, wanting to stretch your legs and think about anything but a deadly dull legal proceeding.

You would have found, at Litwin Furniture, not just an emporium of elegant table clocks, leather-upholstered club chairs and marble-topped sideboards but a veritable social club presided over by Fred Litwin, proprietor since 1951. For the price of admission -- your gracious acceptance of his greeting insult -- you could join an ever-evolving salon of Washington characters who joked, teased and anticipated Litwin's efforts at wit as regulars and newcomers crossed the threshold.

"He'd say, 'Oh, it's the hack-tors,' with the emphasis on 'hack,' " said Naomi Jacobson, one of the theater folk who haunted the historic building. "He always had an animated discussion going on about politics, neighborhood issues or whatever. You didn't go in if you only had five minutes."

In 1986, Litwin cried out in a reporter's presence a mock threat to Andrew Batavia, then an attorney for the Department of Health and Human Services who used a wheelchair: "If you so much as mark one piece of furniture, I'll charge you for it."

Batavia, familiar with the routine, fired back: "Calling this furniture is a gross exaggeration."

Such good-natured gibes masked a genuinely inquisitive and generous personality. Trained as an engineer but pressed into the family business because of his outgoing nature, Litwin could converse -- or get others to discuss -- every topic under the sun. He took classes on furniture and antiques at the Smithsonian. He became a docent at the National Air & Space Museum, where he mesmerized visitors with his enthusiastic descriptions of space shuttles. He was a longtime member of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging, in which scientists regularly examine a cross section of the population over a lifetime. Litwin joined in the 1960s but quit taking the memory test because, he said, it unearthed a deeply buried fear of being labeled a "dummy." He also called himself "a geriatric Lothario."

Rising daily at 6 a.m., he'd ride his Honda 450 motorcycle downtown to open in time for the "breakfast club" of regulars. Over time, habitues included senators, a Cabinet secretary, homeless people and everyone in between.

"He didn't dismiss anybody on superficial, surface presentations," said Kathleen Meredith, a musician who wandered in one sultry summer day 21 years ago. "The only people who got dismissed were those who didn't have a sense of humor and couldn't join in with him and his boisterous ways."

Upon learning of the dire straits of local theater groups, Litwin began lending them furniture for their plays. Instead of the customary charge of 10 percent of the cost of purchase per week, he traded the use of the objects for tickets to the production and a small ad in the program.

"It was unheard of," said actor John Lescault. "I've not come across a merchant before or since who was so generous."

Those donations led to his only speaking part -- in a Washington Stage Guild performance of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." He played Yakov the laborer, whose sole line was, "Dr. Astrov, you're needed at the factory." He performed "with aplomb, like a professional," Lescault said.

Litwin's arts patronage resulted in a certificate, which caused the crowd at the store to dub him "Fred the Important."

The store, on the scrap of Indiana Avenue NW between the Archives/Navy Memorial Metro stop and the District's H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, is one of three buildings in a tight row that date from about 1825. Some of the oldest buildings downtown, they outdate the oldest of the federal behemoths lining nearby Pennsylvania Avenue by a century.

Litwin led a fight in the 1970s to save the buildings from obliteration as the Pennsylvania Area Development Corp. was clearing and rebuilding the area.

Inside Litwin's Furniture was an anomaly: a 19th-century elevator that was hand-operated with two heavy ropes. Its safety device, a carriage spring that latched into bars in the elevator shaft if either of the ropes gave way, made it unique. Elisha Graves Otis invented the device in the early 1850s and patented it. Litwin used it to hoist inventory from the basement to the third floor.

The elevator, which might be the oldest operating elevator in the country, has outlived both the furniture store and its owner.

Litwin closed the store in 2003, when poor health forced him to retire. The space is now a Potbelly Sandwich outlet, and the glassed-in elevator regularly puzzles customers waiting to order a turkey-on-rye.

Fred Litwin, 83, died of thoracic aortic dissection Sept. 14 at Maplewood Park Place in Bethesda.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company