It’s a famous DC landmark
It was conceived in secrecy
It’s a geographic marker for giving directions
It’s been referred to as “Alice in the Looking Glass House”
It was built as a marketing gimmick
By now, you probably know I am referring to the Big Chair. However, what you might not know is how the chair came to be.
We have all seen it and probably asked ourselves “why”. The most familiar “why” is that it was created to honor the Curtis Brothers for their “outstanding leadership and service to the public”; this is the wording on the original dedication plaque. Research shows there are a few explanations for the Big Chair which could be interrelated. These include that the concept for the chair came from Charles Curtis, of the Curtis Brothers Furniture company, as a marketing tool to draw customers to their family furniture business. The Curtis Brothers were furniture retailers whose warehouse, showroom and offices were located in close proximity to the chair. We know definitively that the Big Chair was created by the Virginia-based Bassett Furniture company. But supposedly the owners of Basset Furniture were competing with a chair standing in Thomasville, NC, with the notion that a bigger chair could be built. The story goes that a Bassett team snuck out in the middle of the night to measure the Thomasville big chair to ensure the Bassett chair would be taller and larger.
The Curtis Family business began with an ice and coal hauling company. Then the family got involved in the furniture business with the first store located in Anacostia. It’s not clear what role the chair played, but the SE store was the first in a chain of furniture stores. In fact, Curtis Brothers went on to be the largest single furniture retailer in the United States.
The Big Chair was dedicated on the site at V Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE on July 7, 1959. The original chair was made of solid mahogany brought from Honduras. It was 19 ½ feet high and stands on a concrete, 4-foot-high pedestal. The chair weighs 4,600 pounds. Its seat is as large as two double-sized beds. At the time it was built, it was believed to be the world’s largest chair.
Over time, the chair began to rot because it was made of wood. In August 2005, the chair was disassembled and removed for restoration. On April 25, 2006, the chair was returned by Curtis Properties (former Curtis Brothers). However, it was not the same chair, rather it was a replica made of aluminum painted brown.
The original Big Chair was not destroyed. It now resides in storage.