The Chair That Johnson C. Smith University Scrambled to Find for Taft
Quirky furniture from William Howard Taft’s visit 108 years ago
THE UNREMARKABLE CHAIR rests in the corner, low-slung with wooden arms and a dominant faux leather cushion. It is just a little too low to the ground, and the back of the chair sits just a little too straight, sporting unnecessarily wide armrests. It’s the type of chair that’s last to be chosen when any other sitting option presents itself.
This is the president’s chair, unassuming among the more prominent relics in the James B. Duke library archives at Johnson C. Smith University. Well, a replica of it, at least. The chair wouldn’t be a Charlotte historical artifact if it hadn’t disappeared years ago. All that remains of the original, lost to decades of campus furniture-shuffling, is this copy, a graceless symbol of a time when Charlotte received the national spotlight it pursued as an up-and-coming city in the new South.
In May 1909, during his first year in office, President William Howard Taft visited Charlotte to take part in the city’s annual celebration of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. This celebration was for years Charlotte’s largest social event and, at the time, meant more to Charlotteans than the Fourth of July. In 1909, the president’s visit enhanced the excitement.
Taft was an impressive man who, in addition to serving as the 27th president, later became the 10th Supreme Court chief justice. He was also extremely, unavoidably, bombastically large. He stood just under six feet tall and weighed roughly 330 pounds. His largeness makes it easy to believe the rumors about the consequences of his size, most famously that he was once stuck so tightly in the White House bathtub, six men were required to pull him out. The new bathtub, installed shortly afterward, supposedly could fit four normal-sized men, a precaution to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing episode.
Secret Service members were familiar with the outsized accommodations President Taft required, and they arrived at Johnson C. Smith University (known at the time as Biddle University) ahead of the visit, to survey the area where the president was to give his speech. In what must have been one of the most tactful conversations in Charlotte history, the Secret Service noted to the faculty that the chairs provided for the president were all “ill-equipped” to hold a man of President Taft’s stature.
The (presumably thin) faculty members quickly pooled their money to find and purchase an existing chair large enough to accommodate the president’s girth. Thanks to his fast-thinking hosts, Taft’s visit was free of any chair-related drama, and he delivered his speech to the university.
America’s largest president likely never knew of the last-minute rush by the school’s faculty to ensure his comfort during his visit. His hosts did whatever was necessary to showcase the community of which they were so proud. That character endures more than a century later, and perhaps there’s no greater representation of Charlotte than this replica of an oversized president’s chair, a modernized stand-in for a time when resourcefulness and Southern hospitality came together to demonstrate the best of this city when the eyes of the nation came to call.
John Short is a freelance writer and cohost of The Charlotte Podcast (among other professions) who loves digging up Charlotte’s past and pondering its future. Email him at email@example.com with your favorite Charlotte trivia or say hey when you see him on the streetcar.