I’ll let the donor, Rev. Alexander Livesay, describe today’s artifact:

“Turn of the century oak office chair with arms recently refinished and in perfect condition. This chair was moved from the old Red Brick Montgomery Courthouse by the Welfare Department when it moved to the new county office building. In 1967 the chair was all apart lying in a heap on the floor in an office at the County Office Building. I had it glued together in August of that year–in the month of October 1975 it was refinished. Since I’m leaving the county service [in 1977, the year of donation], it should not be lost to the citizens of Montgomery County; therefore, I give it to the Historical Society.”

Rev. Livesay was an Episcopal minister at a number of churches in the DC area; he also served as the Montgomery County Department of Social Services Community Development Director from 1962-63 and 1967-1977, which is how he ended up caring for the chair.

The chair’s journey, described briefly by the donor, reflects – on a small scale – the history of our local government agencies and office buildings. The Montgomery County Welfare Board* was formed in response to the Great Depression in 1934, picking up the efforts of earlier, private organizations. Like many county agencies, the newly-formed Welfare Board had an office in the 1891 Red Brick Courthouse in Rockville where a trained executive, two case workers, and seven relief aides worked (when they weren’t out in the field). Judging from this 1935 photo of the Welfare staff (donated by Gladys Benson, who is pictured ninth from the left), the agency grew rapidly.

By the early 1950s county government offices were spread out among a number of buildings, including both the 1891 and 1931 courthouses; a new County Office Building** at the corner of Jefferson Street and Maryland Avenue opened in 1953, and the Welfare Board moved in soon thereafter. The building was already too small by the 1960s, and it was expanded in 1963 and 1967. In 1964, when plans were being made for that second addition, a newspaper article mentioned that the health and welfare offices were among those to be moved to the new wing. Perhaps the chair just wasn’t built to withstand that many office moves, and that’s why Rev. Livesay, starting his second go-round with the Department in 1967, discovered it “in a heap on the floor.” (I love that description; it makes it sound like the chair just gave up, or fainted, or something.) Otherwise, I’m not sure how a fairly solid piece of furniture ends up in pieces; I hate to think that someone took out their anger on the poor unsuspecting chair.

An office chair with "Bank of England arms" in the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co catalog

As for the chair itself, it is oak, nicely (re)finished, with a few discreet repairs and metal braces. The design is a variation on the Bank of England armchair, a popular office chair in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These chairs were made in both swivel and straight styles; some have padded seats, others are comfortably contoured saddle seats; most are backed with a row of flat spindles, but a few have central splats, whether pierced or plain. An internet search for “Bank of England armchair” brings up a wide variety of these chairs, both vintage and modern. Although I have not found a photo of this particular style in use in the county offices, below are some similar Bank of England chairs in contemporary Red Brick Courthouse photos.

Rev. Livesay saw some potential in this chair, broken as it was. He does not say specifically, but I assume that he used it in his own office after having it repaired and refinished. Recognizing it as a relic – one of a few – that was saved from the removal of the county offices from the Courthouse, he wanted it to be preserved, not just put to use. (And maybe he was afraid that his replacement would completely refurnish the office, and the chair was once again headed for the furniture graveyard.) The Historical Society has not always been so attuned to artifacts from the relatively recent past; I’m thankful that both Rev. Livesay and my curatorial predecessors had a care for its future.

*In 1967 the name was changed to the Department of Public Welfare, and in 1968 to the Department of Social Services.

**The building was dedicated in honor of Councilwoman Stella Werner in 1983.

Photos!  First, the County Commissioner’s Office (in the Red Brick Courthouse), 1913 – donated by Sumner Wood. (Eugene Cissel, at left, is seated in a swivel Bank of England style chair.)  Second, Henry Clinton Allnutt, Register of Wills from 1897 to 1923, in the Oprhans Court – donated by Ellen Allnutt Elgin.  Click on either of the photos to get a larger version, if you want to admire all the lovely furniture and office accessories, including the chairs of course.