There’s a humongous chair at the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and V Street in Anacostia, named, appropriately, the Big Chair. And while it is quite the spectacle, the Big Chair is also a symbol of economic opportunity in the neighborhood.
Curtis Brothers Furniture, which sat on what was then Nichols Avenue, built the Big Chair in 1959. Ever since, even when it held the title of biggest chair in the world, it’s been a homegrown landmark, out of sight of the monumental core.
Alice in “The Looking Glass House”
To distinguish themselves in the competitive home decor marketplace, the brothers launched a marketing idea that would immortalize them in Anacostia folklore.
A full-page ad ran in the Evening Star on August 12, 1960 advertising “Alice in the Looking Glass House.” Photo from the DC Public Library, Special Collections.
On August 13, 1960, amidst the summer’s heat and humidity, 21-year old Lynn Arnold began living atop the Big Chair in a 10-by-10 foot glass house complete with a balcony. “See her sleep, eat, exercise and sun bathe, a site you’ll remember for years to come,” read a full-page advertisement in the Evening Star alluding to the sequel of the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Lynn had been offered the job while shopping at Curtis Brothers.
After 42 days, Arnold came down from “the smallest efficiency apartment in town.” She told the Star, “I was in the store buying furniture for my own apartment when they asked me if I’d like the job. I’ve done a lot of modeling and the pay for this was a great deal.”
Throughout her stay atop the big chair, Lynn’s husband came to visit, and they often spoke on the phone. Lynn’s accommodations included wall-to-wall carpet, TV, radio and a bathroom and shower covered by a wooden wall. In order to eat everyday Lynn lifted her meals up on a tray.
“If I had the same decision to make I still would have done it,” Lynn, told a reporter. “But I wouldn’t ever do it twice. I was never really lonely. After a day of people staring I was more than ready to close the curtains and be a bit alone.”
Upgrades to the Big Chair
Curtis Brothers survived the 1968 riots unscathed (by posting employees outside its doors with shotguns, according to long-time residents), but the business closed its showroom and warehouse in the mid-1970s.
By the early 2000s the original Big Chair, made of mahogany, was deteriorating. Numerous holes in the seat had been patched with concrete, and in August 2005, the original chair was removed.
Eight months later, however, a $40,000 aluminum replica went up in the Big Chair’s original location.
A “symbol of hope”
Today, the Big Chair endures as an over-sized emblem of Anacostia. A bar and grill across the street and a now-closed flea market use its namesake, and it nearly got its own ale named after it at Chocolate City Beer.
“Curtis Brothers was the Marlo Furniture of its time, and all sorts of festivities happened around the chair such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny being in the seat during the holidays,” says Rev. Oliver “OJ” Johnson, who as a student at nearby Birney Elementary School recalls taking field trips to the Big Chair.
“It was a sign of economic of progress for the neighborhood, and not just one of the best marketing moves in downtown Anacostia, but maybe in the history of our city,” Johnson says.
Anacostia’s revitalization has been in the forecast for decades, but it has yet to arrive. The Big Chair is a reminder of the neighborhood’s economic potential.
“That chair has endured good times, bad times and good times reborn,” Johnson declared. “It is a symbol of hope for this community.”