All posts by Grant

Conserving The Ephemeral

This summer we have a wonderful opportunity to work with our colleagues at the Smithsonian Latino Center to undertake a rare and important project, the conservation of a raft used by Cuban balseros in the 1990s – balsero is a term given to thousands of individuals who left Cuba aboard homemade vessels called balsas (rafts).
The raft, constructed of Styrofoam, wood, textiles, and other found materials, measures 78 ½” in length and 34 ¾” in width. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) rescued two men from this raft 35 miles southeast of Miami in July 1992. Humberto Sanchez, a member of Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), acquired the raft from USCG and donated it to the Museum in 1996. For a number of years, the raft has been stored undisturbed inside of a custom-built crate.

Raft before conservation. Object no. 1996.0008.0001. Photograph by Grant Czubinski, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

This spring, we opened the crate to assess the condition of the raft. Given its provenance, construction, and age, signs of use were readily visible on its top and sides. The wooden dowels used to anchor the support rails to the raft’s body were both broken, had shifted over time, and deformed the foam around them. The foam support structure for one of the rails had collapsed and caused a foam fragment to detach from the body. We also found that the textile wrapped around the body had torn and separated from the body in several places.

Before undertaking conservation work, we took stock of the raft’s significance. We knew that its use, history, and symbolism were of paramount importance. The Museum’s intent was not to restore, but rather to stabilize the raft and preserve the human story of its use by two men who fled Cuba during the summer of 1992.

Raft following conservation. Photograph by Steven Pickman.

To stabilize the raft, we chose to repair the dowels supporting the wooden rails and to fill in the foam around them. We also reattached a foam fragment and filled in gaps to avoid further breakage and to better support the railing.  We reattached the textile wrapped around the raft’s body in areas where it risked tearing from the foam and becoming completely detached. These repairs restored the raft to a state where it was stable and solid, but still looks well used.

During the project, we lifted the raft onto two sawhorses to observe its bottom. We discovered wooden planks that are connected to the railings at the top. Evidently, the foam is built onto a makeshift wooden structure that holds everything together, top to bottom, while the textile holds things together around the sides.

Conservator Steven Pickman shows Anacostia Community Museum Collections Manager Miriam Doutriaux areas of interest in the conservation of a raft hand-built by Cubans. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Following conservation, we built a new storage platform that supports specific areas of the bottom of the raft, to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the newly discovered wooden planks. It will remain stored on the platform until it goes on display.

Now that the conservation is complete, we are moving forward with our next exciting project: 3D scanning and digitization. Stay tuned for future posts, as we work with our Smithsonian colleagues to document it further in the coming weeks!

Writing on the Wall

A couple of months ago, the Museum received a call from the owners of a house in the historic Anacostia neighborhood. The Reeves family was beginning renovations when they discovered writing on a bedroom wall. In faded letters, they could make out the words “Clark Womer Teates,” among a series of other names. Looking in the DC Historical Building Permits Database, they discovered Teates was the first owner of the house when it was built in 1905.

Intrigued by their discovery, the Museum’s staff photographer and I headed over to see for ourselves. The Museum strives to document and preserve local history, and our photography collection targets sites, people, and events that shine a light on our communities. This sounded like an opportunity to learn about the residents, past and present, who have made historic Anacostia home.

Photo by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

We soon discovered that the writing on the wall was a family tree of the Teates nuclear family. The patriarch, Clark Teates, appears at the top, next to his wife, Rosann. Below them are their three daughters in order of birth, Agnes, Ruth, and Alice. Both Clark and Rosaan names are followed by birth and death dates. Barely legible to the right are the names of the husbands and children of the Teates daughters.

Returning to the Museum, we searched Census records and Washington, DC newspapers. Born in Pennsylvania in 1876, Clark Womer Teates came to Washington, DC during the 1890s by way of Fauquier County, VA, where he received accreditation to serve as an attendant in a hospital. By 1897, Clark found employment at the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) in the southeast quadrant of Washington, DC. The 1900 Census records him as living at the hospital.

Clark Teates listed in the 1897 Washington, DC City Directory.

In 1901, Clark married Rosann Smith. Four years later, in 1905, the couple welcomed their first daughter, Agnes, the same year they moved into their new home in Anacostia. Daughters Ruth and Alice were born soon after. By 1910, Clark had changed employment to the United States Government Printing Office (The United States Government Publishing Office), where he worked as a caster operator. Rosann also worked for the Federal Government in the Internal Revenue Service as late as 1940.  Clark and Rosann continued to live in their Anacostia house for the rest of their lives, marking a half century of Teates ownership and occupation.

Sometime after Clark’s death in 1948, someone decided to write the family tree on the wall. It is possible that it was one of the Teates daughters, before the house left the family for good after Rosann’s death in 1958. They left behind a small piece of personal history for future occupants of the house to discover, decades later.

When the Reeves bought their home in historic Anacostia, they knew that they were settling in a community steeped in history. Little did they know, their house has a rich history of its own recorded on the bedroom wall, with the names of the first family to make memories there. A photograph of the wall is now part of the Museum’s Community Documentation Photography collection, for others to discover and enjoy, while the house itself continues to be a cherished home for an Anacostia family over a century later, a space where the Reeves will make family memories for years to come.

If you have a story or history that you would like to share, please contact us.

Big Day For the Big Chair

Fifty-nine years ago today, Curtis Brothers Furniture Company declared July 25, 1959 Big Chair Day to celebrate the oversized chair that stood as a conspicuous advertisement in front of their showroom at the corner of V Street and Nichols Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue) in southeast Washington, DC. A piece of the original Big Chair is in the Museum’s collection, bearing testimony to one of the Anacostia neighborhood’s most famous landmarks.

Modeled in the Duncan Phyfe style and crafted out of mahogany, the 19 ½ foot, 4,600 pound chair was installed atop a four foot high concrete pedestal with a plaque touting it as the “World’s Largest Chair.” It took skilled laborers from Bassett Furniture Industries 900 hours to construct it in late 1958, and once erected, it became an immediate attraction, drawing visitors from all over the city.

January 16, 2018 – Bolivian dance troupe Tinkus Tiatako dances near the Big Chair sculpture during the annual Martin Luther King Jr Day Parade in historic Anacostia.
Photo by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The Curtis Brothers Furniture Company capitalized on people’s curiosity and celebrated Big Chair Day extravagantly with a carnival-like atmosphere. The company gave away furniture and other prizes, offered pony rides for children and orchids for women, hosted live music by The Buckskins, and offered free photographs of customers with the Big Chair. The crowning moment of Big Chair Day 1959 was the coronation of Maureen Reagan, daughter of future President Ronald Reagan, as Miss World’s Largest Chair.[1]

The Curtis Brothers continued advertising their company as the “Home of the World’s Largest Chair” until it folded in 1975. Just months after hosting Big Chair Day, the company celebrated the Christmas holiday with advertisements calling on Washingtonians to “come and see the World’s Largest Santa sitting on the World’s Largest Chair.”[2] Another marketing gimmick featured a 9×10 foot furnished glass house placed atop the chair. A young woman named Rebecca Kirby, a model who went by the name Lynn Arnold, lived in it for forty-two days. The event was widely advertised by the furniture store and covered by the local press.[3] Local residents who witnessed it talked about it for decades[4]

Chuck Brown performing atop the Big Chair.
Photo by Steven M. Cummings, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Since its construction, the Big Chair has functioned as more than an advertisement for furniture. It has served as a gathering place for local residents, a way-finding marker for those giving directions, and a focal point of Washington, DC’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Even after the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company closed in 1975, the chair remained at the same street corner, unchanged for decades save for repairs and painting by its caretaker, John Kidwell.  George Curtis III, son of the original furniture store owner, stated in 1986 “There’s no difference between that and the Washington Monument. It’s a landmark.”[5]

As befits a landmark, the Big Chair has shown great longevity. Although the original mahogany frame had to be dismantled in 2005 due to weathering, a new Big Chair was quickly erected in the same location, largely funded by the Curtis Investment Group. It was unveiled on April 25, 2006, in front of 250 invited guests, civic leaders, and politicians, including then-Washington, DC Mayor, Anthony A. Williams. The new Chair is cast proportionately to the original, but made of 2,600 pounds of painted aluminum, which requires less maintenance and lasts infinitely longer than wood. It continues the tradition of anchoring the community and standing as a landmark of Anacostia.

Souvenir block from the original Big Chair. Object no. 2006.0007.0001

As to the remainder of the original Big Chair, the discarded mahogany was cut into souvenir blocks, one of which was eventually donated to our Museum. Though a simple wooden block, it carries the weight of a neighborhood’s history – conveying some of what the Big Chair has meant to Anacostia in the six decades since the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company crafted it to draw in customers.

[1] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 24, 1959, sec C, 20. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[2] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1959, sec A, 4. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[3] “Model Gets Her Feet On the Ground Again,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 24, 1960, sec A, 8. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[4] Paul Schwartzman, “The Return of the Big Chair: A Very Big Deal,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2006, (accessed July 17, 2018).

[5] Sandra Fleishman, “It May Not Be the Biggest but It’s Ours,” The Washington Post Magazine, November 23, 1986, 17-18. Proquest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877 – 2001), (accessed July 17, 2018).

A Pin Box in a Haystack

In honor of Presidents’ Day, the Museum’s Registrar highlights the museum’s curious connection to President Wilson.

From George Washington’s first inauguration until the present, Americans have been captivated by the nation’s highest office, and immediately that fascination extended into collecting and preserving objects associated with the Presidency. What started as a personal pursuit in the early 19th century has become the purview of museum and library professionals who collect, preserve, and curate objects related to each Commander in Chief.

As the Smithsonian’s community museum, our interest is in the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary people. As such, we are most interested in the local and personal manifestations of the Presidency. Our collection includes campaign buttons worn by community organizers, and pens that signed legislation into law.

One item in our collection, a small porcelain box with lid, recently caught me by surprise. The box was labeled as an archaeological artifact, part of a group of objects excavated in 1991 prior to the construction of the Anacostia Metro station in Washington D.C. It was stored in a cabinet with other archaeological finds from this dig, including early 20th century glass bottles, broken porcelain, keys, and other small items. At first glance, the attribution made sense because these things were all early 20th century household items. A maker’s mark on the bottom of the box, ‘Victoria Carlsbad, Austria,’ identified it as a fairly common item, readily available for purchase in Washington in the early 1900s.

This porcelain pin box in our collection is said to have been a gift from President Wilson’s wife to a local dressmaker. Object No. 2019.2.5a+b.

However, two recent discoveries caused me to question this attribution. Our friends from the D.C. office of Historic Preservation came to do an inventory of all the archaeological finds and field notes, and found no specific mention of this box. While not entirely unusual, this was intriguing. Meanwhile, a team of collections researchers were scouring through hundreds of files related to past exhibitions at the museum. One file referenced a china pin box donated by Mrs. Rosa Ware Jones, which was displayed in the museum’s 1977 exhibition The Anacostia Story, 1608-1930. This reference immediately attracted my attention.

What was so distinctive about this reference? I noticed the word “donated” – implying the box in the exhibit was a gift to the museum – yet I knew of no “china pin box” documented as such in our collection. Exhibit documents recorded the box’s provenance: given by one of President Woodrow Wilson’s wives to a dressmaker named Lillie Green, born in 1882, who lived on Elvans Road SE in the 1910s.

The Green family listed as living on Elvans Road SE in the 1910 Federal Census.
Year: 1910; Census Place: Precinct 11, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: T624_149; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 0234; FHL microfilm: 1374162

Could this be our box? I looked for additional sources that might corroborate the box’s origin. Inventories conducted by museum staff over the years all list the porcelain box, but offer little additional information. Yet I noticed that an inventory conducted in 1988 described a “china pin box,” using the same words as the Anacostia Story exhibition script and thus confirming that the museum kept the box after the exhibition. Later inventories continue to list this box and no other, even after the 1991 acquisition of the archaeological artifacts – casting further doubt on the archaeological provenance. Finally, a grainy photograph of the exhibition surfaced, showing a small white object on display. The poor quality of the photograph makes it difficult to see, but the item could be our box.

Knowing all of this, and looking again at the box and lid, its attribution to the archaeological dig is suspicious. It is in good condition, with a few scratches but no breaks – unlike virtually all of the material from the dig.

So assuming this is indeed the “china pin box,” does its story hold up?

First, who was Lillie Green? Federal Census records for 1900 and 1910 list her as a dressmaker born in 1882, living at 93 Elvans Road SE with her father, brothers, and sisters. She is listed with the same address and occupation in the 1913, 1916, and 1918 Washington, DC city directories. Better yet, this corresponds to President Woodrow Wilson’s time in office, making its story plausible: that the box was given to Ms. Green by one of President Wilson’s wives.

Lillie and Lula Green appear in the 1913 Washington, D.C. City Directory

Ms. Green died prematurely on August 21, 1917, as recorded the next day in the Washington Evening Star. What happened to her china pin box? It appears to have been passed down in the family, a treasured heirloom with a remarkable story. Federal census records and newspapers – as well as – identify Ms. Rosa Jones as the daughter of Lula Green, Lillie Green’s younger sister. It was Rosa who, six decades later, donated her aunt’s box – along with its exceptional story – to our museum.

We cannot corroborate beyond a doubt that this pretty porcelain pin box was a gift from the President’s wife. However, all the pieces available to us coincide to support Rosa Jones’ statements at the time she donated the box to our museum. Significantly, Mrs. Jones’ gift attests that Washington residents, like others around the country, have long treasured objects with a presidential connection.