In Anacostia, people still talk about the pretty woman who lived for 42 days on the big chair, high above what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, eating and sleeping and waving to the crowds who came to see her.
Over time, the stories took on the feeling of folklore, except that they were all true, every word, including the fact that the woman had a telephone up there, and a television and a fridge. Now there's a new story, also true: After 46 years as a singular Southeast Washington landmark, the big chair is gone, dismantled, its 191/2-foot-high mahogany frame weather-beaten and rotting.
"It's like going home and not finding your kids there," Ed Robinson, 53, said as he gazed at the empty pedestal where the chair had stood since 1959, when a furniture store put it up to lure customers.
Like many who work and live and regularly travel through Anacostia, Robinson said, he was stunned when he found workers taking the chair down piece by piece as he arrived for work Wednesday morning. In a city of countless monuments and statues, the big chair had evolved into Anacostia's very own homespun attraction, not to mention a well-placed geographic marker that helped define the world.
"That's a landmark," said Robinson, an HIV prevention counselor who works in an office near the chair. "You tell people, 'Meet me at the big chair.' Now what you going to say?"
The chair's fate is in the hands of a thin, gray-bearded contractor named John Kidwell, who has patched, painted and otherwise cared for it over three decades. Kidwell said he plans to rebuild the chair and put it back, though he acknowledged that he is not exactly sure how.
"We just don't know what to do," he said, smoking a cigarette as he stood in paint-splattered khakis among the remnants of the chair, two dozen pieces arrayed on the floor of a garage a couple of blocks from its berth.
Along a wall, turned over on its face, was the seat, 9 by 8 feet and tattered at the edges. There was a front leg, next to another that was rotting from the top. And there was the back, split into pieces. "It's certainly a challenge," Kidwell said with a shrug, estimating that the repair could take two months and cost $30,000. He compared himself to a doctor who is losing one of his patients to cancer. "I'm going to do what I can do to save the patient, but cancer is cancer," he said.
Still, Kidwell said, he understands the importance of his mission to generations who have lived and worked in the neighborhood and beyond. "This is a serious test of my abilities," he said. "We're tearing down Anacostia."
The chair was built as a promotional ploy for Curtis Bros., once a well-known furniture retailer whose warehouse, showroom and offices were at what is now V Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, and then on Nichols Avenue.
At the Curtises' request, a supplier, Bassett Furniture Industries of North Carolina, built a replica of a Duncan Phyfe dining room chair, though a bit heavier than the everyday model, at 4,600 pounds.
When it was completed, the chair was transported in one piece to the District on a flatbed truck, though it had to take a somewhat circuitous route. "It couldn't go under the underpasses," said Charles Curtis, 80, the former president of Curtis Bros., by phone.
The attraction, he said, was an immediate hit with customers, who came from miles away to see it atop a specially made stand that was adorned with a dedication plaque that proclaimed it "The World's Largest Chair."
A year later, Curtis said, he came up with another idea to draw attention: Someone would live on it.
A glass company constructed a 10-by-10-foot cubicle, furnished with a bed, shower, toilet, heater, air conditioner and balcony. It was placed atop the seat.
All the Curtises needed was a tenant, whom they found one afternoon when a 19-year-old woman -- the Washington Junior Chamber of Commerce's "Miss Get Out the Vote 1960" -- walked into their store to buy furniture.
Rebecca Kirby, then a model known as Lynn Arnold, said she was approached by a store manager who asked if she wanted to earn money living atop the chair. "I thought the guy was nuts," Kirby, 64, said by phone from her home 75 miles south of Savannah, Ga.
Despite objections from her husband, Raymond, Kirby said, she agreed to take the job, mostly because she needed money for an operation to remove ovarian cysts. "I didn't want to do anything like stand up there naked or in a bathing suit," she said. "They wanted a Cinderella figure; they didn't want Marilyn Monroe. I figured I could pull this off without being branded a slut."
On Aug. 13, 1960, after Curtis Bros. sent her on a $300 shopping spree for clothes, she said, a forklift raised her to her new home, where her meals were delivered every day and where she watched TV, read books and talked on the telephone. 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 'Looking Glass House' " and guess how long she could remain up there.
For six weeks, Kirby said, she had no regular visitors except for her 14-month-old son, Richard, who was placed in a dumbwaiter for the ride up to his mother. Then, she said, with her earnings approaching $1,500, and her growing tired of life above, she decided to return to earth.
She took a cab home, she recalled, because her husband (they divorced later) refused to pick her up. "I spent the next 20 years trying to live it down," she said, laughing and adding that her life remained largely unchanged except that she was able to pay for her operation.
Kirby eventually moved away, but the big chair remained in place, surviving the 1968 riots, the demise of the Curtis furniture business in the 1970s, and the neighborhood's decline.
The Curtises went into the real estate business but remained at the address, where they converted their property into offices that are the headquarters of the D.C. Lottery. They continued to maintain the big chair, which for a time became home to an oversize Santa Claus and lights at Christmas.
Over the years, the cycles of rain and snow frayed the chair, and the Curtises took to patching holes with cement. Then it was painted in brown automobile paint that could withstand the seasonal changes. Metal braces and fiberglass were added.
Since the 1970s, Kidwell has kept an eye on the chair, even as he liked to remind George Curtis, the chief executive of what is now Curtis Investment Group, that it was taking up two parking spaces. "And he would say, 'Oh no, we can't do that,' " Kidwell said. "The chair belongs to Anacostia."
A couple of months ago, Kidwell inspected it and was stunned by the rot eating away the legs and back. He called George Curtis and told him the chair had to come down before it collapsed. "It was a liability issue," he said.
At 5 a.m. Tuesday, Kidwell and his crew showed up with a backhoe to help pull the chair apart. It took six hours. By the end, a crowd from the surrounding offices and businesses had assembled, taking pictures and wondering whether it was the end of the big chair.
The next day, they were still talking about it.
"It's been there so long, it's strange to look over there and not see it," said Rosa Tatez, 43, a van driver who regularly transports passengers to and from the parking lot where the chair stood.
A few yards away, Maggie Briscoe, 59, who until two years ago lived at Barry Farm, said it had been a fixture for as long as she could remember. The Santa Claus, the lady in the glass house -- it has all been a part of her life.
"They have to put that chair back," she said. "It's our chair."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.