Daily photographs by HANS VON RITTERN, with humorous, artistic and social commentary on life in the big city.

Mondays on Memory Lane: THE STORY OF THE MIRACULOUS TRAVELING CHAIRS !

1961, my 6th Birthday party

1961, my 6th Birthday party

Mondays on Memory Lane: THE STORY OF THE MIRACULOUS TRAVELING CHAIRS
How we found our missing chairs after 20 years!
New Years Eve 1992 with grandmother aka "Oma"

New Years Eve 1992 with grandmother aka “Oma”

In the summer of 1960 my family, consisting of my mother Ursula, her mother Amalie and me, had moved across the street from a furnished walk up apartment to a brand new sprawling modern apartment building on Woodhaven Blvd named The Imperial. The lobby of the building looked like George Jetson’s living room, furnished in very high 1960’s modern style, it was wonderful, but there was more furniture in the lobby than there was in our apartment! Having come from a furnished apartment, we didn’t have much to move in with. Mom was a single parent secretary with impeccable skills who supported her family all by herself. Coming from a proper German family she had been taught you only buy what you can afford. Now that mom had arrived in America, her co-workers convinced Ursula that buying things “on time” was the all American way!
Bloomingdales 1959 American Design Foundation furniture ad

Bloomingdales 1959 American Design Foundation furniture ad

With that in mind, since we needed a dining room set first, mom would look in the stores after work. Ursula’s finer taste led her to Bloomingdale’s, which in those days had an elaborate furniture department. There on the upper floor were the latest of modern designs, and this being 1960, the style was of course Danish Modern. Mom tells me it was “love at first sight” when she was instantly drawn to a display island in the middle of the floor, roped off by velvet ropes, showing a complete dining set designed in 1959 by Kipp Stewart and Stewart MacDougal for the American Design Foundation for the Winchendon Furniture Company.
Six chairs, dinning table with extender leaves, end table and china cabinet. Solid cherry wood with black leather upholstery. “It was exactly my taste!” mom tells me. Although she does not recall the price, she does recall it was “terribly expensive” but fate had intervened – it was on sale! Even with this good fortune, it was still out of her budget range. “Why not buy it on time?” familiarly chimed the sales clerk. Sold! It was delivered soon afterwards.
 QUEENS CHAIR collage
For 53 years our family history has revolved around that set. It has been photographed for every special occasion, every birthday, every holiday, it has truly been the center of our lives. But, lives change. Situations change. So, in 1993 we left New York for Tucson, Arizona believing in the theory that ’the grass is always greener on the other side.’ We hired Mayflower movers who specializes in cross-country moves. We were one of about four families on board the huge, huge truck having their things moved out west. Ursula supervised the movers with an eagle eye, especially her beloved dining room chairs. Since the chairs are so light, it was decided they would be placed at the very, very top of our piled section so as not to dent or crush them. Once we got to Arizona we stayed in a furnished motel first, till we could find the house of our dreams. When the Mayflower movers finally arrived a week after our arrival, our furniture was placed in storage. We first settled on a rental house with option to buy (which we didn’t) and had our furniture packed up again and delivered to our new ‘temporary’ home. As the truck arrived, we watched as the doors opened. There perched at the top were their  treasured chairs. One, two, three, four came off the truck. “Where are the other two?” mom asked with great concern. “Don’t worry lady, they’re there,” the movers assured her. They were not.
Tucson Thanksgiving 1994

Tucson Thanksgiving 1994

We filed claims with Mayflower movers, they gave us the run around with excuses as to where they could be. The stop before us in the mid west, the stop after us in California, somewhere. Surely we thought, surely someone would be decent enough to say, ‘hey, we have two chairs that don’t belong to us.’ No one ever did. We believe that since the partition dividing each families furniture was not completely from floor to ceiling on the truck, the chairs must have toppled over into another families things and were never reported, too much of an inconvenience to some one else.
 FLORIDA DINING SET collage
In time, Ursula finally found the house of her dreams on East Hawk Place at the foot of Mount Lemon. Once again the movers were called. By the year 1999 I realized I was the quintessential New Yorker, miserable in Tucson, and in January 2000 moved back to NYC. One year later my mother to move ‘closer’ to me decided to move to Ft. Meyers Beach, Florida. So the movers (not Mayflower!) were called yet again. Mom’s first  house kept getting flooded by the hurricanes so she  moved yet again to one final house in Ft. Meyers Beach, until three hurricanes descended onto the Florida Gulf within three months. The one thing mom was determined to save each time was her beloved dining room set and she perched it up onto other furniture, thereby saving it from all the floods. Three hurricanes being too much, mom finally moved back to NYC!  For each and every one of the seven moves Ursula’s beloved dining room set has survived – except for the two chairs. Now in 2013 she is firmly ensconced around the corner from me in Sunnyside, Queens. But in all the years since 1993, whenever we have a special occasion at the dinner table, it is only a matter of time till mom will say, “you know, we had six of these chairs!”
On July 18 this year, in the midst of New York’s scorching 100F degree heat wave, I volunteered to go to mom’s holistic pet shop, located on 9th Street in the east village section of Manhattan. Now fate begins to intervene. I have gone to this shop many times before. The subway stop is 8th Street. Oddly enough, I automatically got off at 14th Street. So by foot I headed south. Instead of turning onto East 9th Street, for some unknown reason I turned onto East 12th Street. As I headed down the street, I was drawn into the wonderful The Cure Thrift Shop where proceeds go to the diabetes foundation. The lure of cool air and wonderful things pulled me in. I kept walking as if pulled to the back of the store. Then, when just about 6 feet from the back, my eyes saw – our dining room chairs, exactly two of them! !  It was an absolute surreal moment. Was I seeing right? This couldn’t be. In my days, I have been to every last thrift shop, antique store, garage sale, estate sale, street fair and flea market in New York, upstate, New England, Arizona and Florida – I have never ever seen any part of our dining room set – and here they were…the two of them, as if hey were waiting for me. I was almost afraid to touch them to only then discover the mirage wasn’t real – they were real, priced at $500 for the pair. “Do you know anything about these chairs” I carefully asked?
Stewart-MacDougal Chair in CURE Thrift Shop

Stewart-MacDougal Chair in CURE Thrift Shop

CURE Thrift Shop 111 East 12th Street

CURE Thrift Shop 111 East 12th Street

Chair in the #4 subway

Chair in the #4 subway

Hans' private seating

Hans’ private seating

I was told by a very delightful girl named Ali that they were donated by a woman who had had them for “many years.” My hand started going for my cell phone as I tried to walk calmly out of the store. I rushed across the street and speed dialed mom, “You’re not going to believe this, but I found your chairs!” Mom insisted I was clouded with romantic notions and that it just could not be. Maybe the back is different, different legs, different wood or seat, it just couldn’t be, not after 20 years!  “No mom…it’s them!“ We agreed that fate had intervened and that despite the fact this was certainly not planned for in our budget, if these were truly, truly the chairs, I had to buy them! I recognized the nicks and dents we had accidentally put in them over the years – these were undeniably OUR chairs! Unbelievable! I offered Ali $400 which she warmly accepted. I told Ali the entire story as we both got the Twilight Zone chills and teared up and hugged. I rushed home to show mom the photos I had taken of ‘her’ chairs. “It’s them” she exclaimed, as she just kept staring at the photo in the camera.

The very next day I planned to take the chairs to mom’s apartment, one by one on the subway. Liz the manager greeted me only to reveal that she herself had been the past owner of the infamous chairs for just a few years, before that they had been found in a second hand furniture store. Liz herself reupholstered the seats in white vinyl and insisted the original seats are still underneath, which they are. I thanked her profusely and gingerly carried the first chair to go home to mom.
Ursula and her chairs - 20 years later!

Ursula and her chairs – 20 years later!

Now in New York City, you see all characters carry all sorts of odd things on the subway. The subway doors opened, I placed my chair in the corner and sat down. I got all the required bemused looks. “You Won’t believe the story behind this chair!” I exclaimed, I just couldn’t hold my excitement back as I told a young surprised design student the story. My stop arrived, I rushed to her apartment building and got into the elevator as quickly as possible. Ursula was waiting at the door, “Oh my god, it really IS the chair”, mom just looked at me and then the chair and then me, then the chair…We went into the living room and I placed the first of the missing two chairs, next to it’s mates. After twenty long years they were together again! But wait – I had to go back to the city and do the whole trip over again with chair number two! I headed out the door, heady with excitement and rushed to get missing chair #2. After several hours on July 19, twenty years later, I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but our historic beloved chairs were together again, the dining room set was just as it was on that day in Bloomingdales when that sales person said to Ursula: “Why don’t you just buy them on time?” !
AMERICAN FURNITURE FOUNDATION MEDALLION

AMERICAN FURNITURE FOUNDATION MEDALLION

AMERICAN DESIGN FOUNDATION 1959 STEWART-MacDOUGAL DINING SET TODAY

AMERICAN DESIGN FOUNDATION 1959 STEWART-MacDOUGAL DINING SET TODAY

WINCHENDON FURNITURE COMPANY CHINA CABINET

WINCHENDON FURNITURE COMPANY CHINA CABINET

STEWART-MacDOUGAL WINCHENDON DINING CHAIRS

STEWART-MacDOUGAL WINCHENDON DINING CHAIRS

THE CURE THRIFT SHOP benefiting The Diabetes Foundation
111 East 12th Street, open daily 11:00 – 8:00
212-505-SHOP
PS: Bizarrely enough, a few days later, TCM (Ted Turner Movie) channel showed the 1970 Mel Brooks comedy film “The Twelve Chairs” for the very first time on their channel.
Sunday July 28th, I actually found the original Bloomingdale’s ad for the chairs on the internet. Life is surreal.

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