The Secrets and Messages of the Chairs Where Politicians Sit

From a Washington Post story by Menachem Wecker headlined “The secrets and messages of the chairs where politicians sit”:

It’s hard to talk about Washington without mentioning chairs. The city is the seat of government. The most influential people in Congress chair committees. Politicians unseat one another in elections and in congressional shuffles. But few pay attention to the actual objects upon which our leaders sit.

A forthcoming book, “The Art of Seating,” recommends taking chairs seriously both as sculptures and political statements. “Just through the singular lens of the chair, you can see progress of the young nation up to and including the present day,” its author, Brian J. Lang, chief curator of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, told me. His book relays the stories of 57 chairs, including some from America’s early government.

Chairs, notes James Zemaitis, curator and director of museum relations at the New York design gallery R & Company, have broadcast power from the start, when stools elevated chieftains on the battlefields. As for the symbol-laden interior design choices at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Matthew Costello, senior historian for the White House Historical Association, puts it this way: “It’s a much more complicated story than ‘I’m just going to pick a chair’ or ‘I need a sofa.’ ”

Nineteenth-century U.S. government chairs quoted stylistically from ancient Greece and Rome to connect the young democracy with historical ones. But there were problems: When it came across the ocean, furniture made for European cafes — where people leaned in to talk — required braces to accommodate American back leaners. “Leaning back in a chair is an American trait,” Zemaitis told me. Sitters found that out the hard way when three Executive Mansion chairs broke within four months after being installed in 1810 — which the designer, Benjamin Latrobe, blamed on men leaning back too far. “Perhaps he was so fixated on creating the Greek-inspired design that he didn’t really think about what the average person is going to do when they sit in these chairs,” Costello said.

In 1857, oak chairs designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, architect of the Capitol extension under President Millard Fillmore, debuted in the House chamber. Their “hardy, hard wood” symbolized “the durability of the nation and the government, which would be tested less than a decade later by the Civil War,” Lang said.

Hunter and trapper Seth Kinman, who had a penchant for gifting animal-bone chairs to presidents, offered Andrew Johnson one made of grizzly bear parts. (He claimed to have killed 800.) The chair, which looks very uncomfortable, appears in a 19th-century illustration of the White House.

A century later, when she learned of a side table by Parisian furniture maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé in storage at the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy, a noted Francophile, retrieved as many of the original suite of 53 pieces as she could. This included chairs, sofas and tables — all acquired in 1817 by President James Monroe’s administration. The originals were upholstered in red but without the eagle decorations Monroe had hoped for. “It just goes to show that even the president of the United States can’t get what he wants,” says Costello.

The White House collection eventually acquired nine of the original Bellangé pieces that had been sold at auction. Today, the chairs and couches look much plusher: They were re-upholstered during the Obama and Trump administrations and, following original specifications, packed with horse hair — including 86 pounds for each sofa.

Inspired by Lang’s book, I went to the bowels of the Rayburn House Office Building, where the business of congressional chairmaking and repair proceeds with little fanfare (and where I got to see a lot of horse hair up close). There, I visited with Carol Swan, manager of the upholstery and drapery shops, which fall under the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.

Swan gets angry when she sees people leaning back in chairs in congressional offices. “I would smack them in the head, believe me, to protect the chair,” she says. “People don’t move chairs nicely or think about the age of the chairs. Chairs get pretty abused in this place.”

I also met Corey Gates, lead upholsterer, who with Swan was preparing for the annual restoration of the speaker’s chair, made in 1941 for Sam Rayburn, the formidable Democrat from Texas who is the building’s namesake. When testing swivels, the two have occasion to sit in chairs they repair, and they report some are less comfortable than one would imagine. According to Swan, everyone in the Cannon House Office Building wants one of the “Turkish”-motif easy chairs, which start very firm but get cozier and fit a member’s body perfectly after five years. “I’ll tell him,” she recounts, “ ‘In five years, this will be comfortable to you, sir.’ ‘Oh, you think I’ll be around then?’ ‘Yeah. You might be.’ ”

Swan and Gates relayed some interesting tidbits: that there’s Kevlar in the seats on the House floor, so legislators can hide behind them to protect against gunfire if necessary. That bomb-sniffing dogs have taken bites out of the upholstery. That members of Congress have had their office furniture poached by other members when they put items in the hallways for repair.

Darren Dahlstrom, manager at Rayburn’s cabinet shop, where furniture is repaired, told me he thinks often of the prestige of his work, particularly when attending to a speaker’s or other leader’s chair. “Not so often with the staff,” he deadpanned.

In the finishing shop, manager John Garcia has been working on many pieces from the Cannon Caucus Room, where the Jan. 6 hearings take place. “We see that on TV, and we say, ‘That’s our work. We did that. We touched that,’ ” he says. “It’s humbling to realize that you’re really making history.”

Menachem Wecker is a writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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