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Adventures from the Archives: Tiny Chairs
Academy Chairs
In the late 1800s, the Visitation Sisters ran a grammar school off Connecticut Avenue in Northwest where these five tiny chairs once lived.

Recently Visitation received a gift of five chairs, which had once belonged to the Convent of the Sisters of the Visitation on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. The convent closed in the 1980s and the chairs were auctioned off. Later the purchaser of the chairs learned that the chairs once belonged to The Academy of the Visitation which was a a grammar school off Connecticut Avenue in Washington, opened in 1850 by the nuns of the Order of the Visitation.

What does an archivist do with such a donation?

First, I gathered as much information as possible from the donor, who in this case, imparted invaluable oral history. Second, I scrutinized the objects themselves. They are roughly the same size, though one stands a little taller, has differently turned spindles, and appears to be fabricated from a wood different than the others. They all have had a hastily applied varnish job, which obscures the original surface. Spots at the top of many of the legs show evidence of the original finish with cracklature, a specialized word describing a network of fine cracks on any varnished surface.

The chairs bear no marks of any kind, no evidence that they came from the Academy. The only evidence of provenance, that is, a record of previous ownership, is an oral history, but this is important nonetheless. A good curator must be transparent, always citing her sources, clarifying what is known and what is not known about an object.

What do available sources tell us?

The Washington Academy of the Visitation was an institution separate from our own. In 1876, the Sisters purchased land on Connecticut Avenue between L Street and M Street, then adding a new street to the city's grid, named after St. Francis de Sales, which still exists today.

The four-story building housed a dormitory, classrooms, and living space for the Sisters. In 1919, however, the Sisters sold this property. The Academy was torn down, and the Mayflower Hotel was built in its place.

This sale funded the purchase of land on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda for a new convent. In the 1980s the National Institutes of Health bought the convent and auctioned its contents. It is from this sale that our donor acquired the chairs. More information available here.

Now what?

Please go see these tiny chairs, on display on the third floor of Founders Hall, lined up on the wall across from the Heritage Room clerestory windows.

Given that the Academy was a grammar school, it follows then that these chairs are so small. They are scaled for little legs of younger children. They are important artifacts of a school whose tradition was much like ours.

Additional resources
Keith McClinsey, Washington D.C.'s Mayflower Hotel, Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Listen to a review of a new book on the history of chairs, Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski.

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