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Big chairs: A big deal in D.C.

(Published March 13, 2000)


Staff Writer

The District may not be big, blustery or the city of the big shoulders, but we can at least say we are the city of the big chairs. Overlooking two widely disparate neighborhoods in the District are two strangely similar pieces of gargantuan furniture – one representing art and the other, commerce.

Georgetown and Anacostia would at first glance seem to have very little in common. But the big green Adirondack chair at 35th Street and Reservoir Road NW is a quirky reflection of the 19-foot-high Duncan Phyfe dining room chair overlooking the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and W Street SE.

Cathy Conn considers herself the caretaker for the big green chair in the yard of Duke Ellington School of the Arts. When anyone has a question or concern regarding the big green chair, they go to her. Whenever it needs a new coat of paint, she goes to work.

Conn, a visual arts teacher, happened to answer the phone in the art office one day in 1996 and on the other line was someone who wanted to tell her about a 12-foot-high seafoam green-colored Adirondack chair.

That seafoam green chair, now poised on a Georgetown hill, is one of many public art projects in the country – and one of many green chairs..

Artist Joel Sisson built an Adirondack chair for his front yard in Minneapolis, and after it disappeared, built another one that was stolen as well. He gathered another artist and local teen-agers, and built 90 chairs, painted them seafoam green, and before dawn one morning, gave two to each neighbor along a two-block stretch. The Green Chair Project was born.

In 1996, two big green chairs and 50 regular-size chairs were hauled to the National Mall, assembled and displayed there. Conn chose 10 students to help the artists and a group of students from Minnesota assemble the pre-painted pieces. Their names are on the plaque on the chair and the last of them will be graduating in May, she said.

The school is responsible for painting the chair seafoam green every year, she said, because the chair still belongs to the project. And when the yearly coating comes around, again Conn is in charge. She said it probably will never end.

"It’ll be my legacy," she said. "I’ll send them a gallon of paint every year."

While the chair is a symbol for the school, Conn said, it also represents the visual arts. She said that’s important to the students because the school gets so much recognition for its performing arts.

Smaller versions of the chair sit outside the Washington International Youth Hostel because the artists stayed there during their trip to D.C., and at the Fillmore Art Center because they let them park their truck there, she said.

Students and families use the big green chair as a backdrop for pictures, and many people carve their initials into it, Conn said.

It’s not as easy for people to take pictures sitting atop the other big chair in Anacostia. At its dedication on July 11, 1959, it was the world’s largest chair at 19 and a half feet in height.

The 4,600-pound replica of a Duncan Phyfe dining room chair is made out of solid Honduras mahogany and was built by Bassett Furniture Industries of Bassett, Va., for Curtis Brothers Furniture. The family-owned furniture business, now closed, was located next to the big chair and sold Bassett pieces.

It was "a monument to the furniture industry," said Louis Rizzo, president of Curtis Property Management Corp. Curtis Brothers has ceased its furniture production but still runs the family-owned real estate business.

The site of the furniture store is now the Anacostia Professional Building, the old warehouse is the D.C. Lottery headquarters, and the big chair – a tribute to craftsmanship and commerce – acts as a community landmark and point of reference.

"When you give directions in Anacostia to someone who doesn’t know it, you say, ‘wait a minute, let’s start at the big chair’," said Percy Battle, who has lived one and a half blocks from the chair for 45 years.

Battle, who heads the Elks Lodge in Anacostia, said he sees the big chair every time he goes downtown, and, he said after a long pause, every time coming back from downtown. Seeing a legendary landmark every day doesn’t seem to faze him anymore.

The two biggest landmarks in Anacostia are the Frederick Douglass home and the big chair, said Philip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. The chair was put there as a promotion for the furniture store and it evolved into a landmark for Anacostia, Pannell said. It has been well-preserved and recently repaired, he said.

People 40 and older who grew up in the area would make the connection of the big chair with the Curtis Brothers store, he said, and probably remember the famous gimmick known as "Crystal in the glass house" when a woman lived on top of the chair for about one month.

"I still think of it as being one of the more brainier promotional pieces that’s happened around here," said Carl Cole, an Anacostia resident.

The company also used to sit an automated giant Santa Claus on the chair at holiday time, but he now belongs to another company in Maryland, Cole said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator