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Seats of Power: How Seats Help Define Our History and Leadership

It’s hard to talk about Washington without mentioning the chairs. The city is the seat of government. The most influential people in Congress chair the committees. Politicians flip in elections and congressional reshuffles. But few pay attention to the real objects on which our leaders sit.

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

Chairs, notes James Zemaitis, curator and director of museum relations at New York-based design gallery R & Company, diffused power early on, when stools elevated leaders 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, explains it this way: “It’s a much more complicated story than ‘I’m going to just choose a chair.’ or ‘I need a couch.’ ”

Nineteenth-century American government chairs stylistically cited ancient Greece and Rome to connect the young democracy with the ancient ones. But there were problems: When it crossed the ocean, furniture made for European cafes — where people leaned over to talk — needed braces to accommodate American seniors. “Leaning back in a chair is an American trait,” Zemaitis told me. Keepers found out the hard way when three Executive Mansion chairs broke within four months of being installed in 1810 – something designer Benjamin Latrobe blamed on men leaning too far back. “Perhaps he was so obsessed with creating Greek-inspired design that he didn’t really think about what the average person was going to do when they sat in those chairs,” m said Costello.

In 1857, oak chairs designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, architect of the Capitol expansion under President Millard Fillmore, debuted in the Chamber of the House. Their “hard, sturdy wood” symbolized “the durability of the nation and government, which would be tested less than a decade later by civil war,” Lang told me.

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

A century later, when she learned of the existence of a side table by Parisian furniture maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé in storage at the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy, a notorious Francophile, salvaged as much of the original 53-room suite as she could. This included chairs, sofas, and tables, all acquired in 1817 by the administration of President James Monroe. 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,” Costello says.

The White House collection eventually acquired nine of Bellangé’s original pieces that had been sold at auction. Today, chairs and sofas look much more plush: They were reupholstered during the Obama and Trump administrations and, to original specifications, wrapped in horsehair — including 86 pounds for each sofa.

Inspired by Lang’s book, I went into the bowels of the Rayburn House Office Building, where the business of manufacturing and repairing congressional chairs goes on without fanfare (and where I got to see a lot of horsehair up close of horse). There I visited Carol Swan, manager of the upholstery and drapery stores, which fall under the office of the general manager’s house.

Swan becomes angry when she sees people leaning against chairs in the congressional offices. “I would kick them on the head, believe me, to protect the chair,” she said. “People don’t move chairs well or think about the age of chairs. The chairs are pretty abused in this place.

I also met Corey Gates, chief upholsterer, who prepared with Swan the annual restoration of the speaker’s chair, carried out in 1941 for Sam Rayburn, the formidable Democrat of Texas who bears the building’s name. When testing swivels, the two have the opportunity to sit on chairs they repair, and they report that some are less comfortable than one would imagine. According to Swan, everyone in the Cannon House office block wants one of the “Turkish” patterned armchairs, which start out very firm but become more comfortable and conform to a member’s body after five year. “I’ll tell him,” she says, “’In five years it’ll be comfortable for you, sir.’ “Oh, do you think I’ll be there then?” ” ‘Yeah. You could be.’ ”

Swan and Gates relayed some interesting information: that there is Kevlar in the seats on the floor of the House, so lawmakers can hide behind them for protection from gunfire if necessary. Those bomb-sniffing dogs bit the upholstery. That members of Congress have had their office furniture stolen by other members when they put things in the hallways for repair.

Darren Dahlstrom, manager of the Rayburn cabinetmaking shop, where furniture is repaired, told me he often thinks about the prestige of his work, especially when dealing with a speaker’s chair or another leader. “Not so often with the staff,” he deadpanned.

In the finishing shop, director John Garcia worked on many of the rooms in the Cannon Caucus room, where the January 6 hearings are taking place. “We see this on TV and say, ‘That’s our job. We did it. We hit that,” he says. “It’s humbling to realize that you are truly making history.”

Menachem Wecker is a writer from Silver Spring.