The Cross House

The Butler’s Pantry: A Deepening Mystery

On the west wall of the butler’s pantry is the “silver safe”. I use quotes because I have no confirmation of this. It is just assumed due to the heavy steel bar which goes across the two lower doors.

 

You can see that, at some point, somebody tried to get into the “safe”.

 

In a previous post, I observed that the cabinet doors to the “safe” were different than all the other doors in the butler’s pantry. Why?

 

In addition, the “safe” doors are made of a different wood (white oak?) than the pine used for the rest of the pantry. Why? Then Adam noticed that the shelves in the “safe” were fixed (bottom cabinet) while the upper cabinet shelves were adjustable. Why?

 

The upper cabinet shelves are adjustable, as are the shelves in the south cabinet.

 

But the shelves in the “safe” are fixed. Why?

 

Another curious thing about the shelves? Why is there no third shelf at the bottom? Why the TALL space? If the cabinet was, indeed, intended as a silver safe, was this TALL space for silver candelabra?

 

The back of the “safe” is wood, even though the rest of the pantry has plaster backs. Why?

 

See how the “safe” doors (lower right) vertically align with the doors above?

 

But they do not align in real life. Why?

 

Why?

 

Everything about the “safe” is a mystery:

  • Why the different wood?
  • Why are its doors a different style?
  • Why does it have fixed shelves?
  • Why the TALL space?
  • Why does it not align with the doors above?

I had surmised that the different style of the doors, and different wood, could be explained by the original doors perhaps being damaged at some point by a break-in, and then replaced. OK. Maybe. Then I surmised that this could also explain why the whole pantry was painted, because the new doors would have stood out too much.

However, I have now disproved the latter:

 

I refinished one “safe” door. You can see that, even though it is a different wood than the pine door to the left, it does not stand out. 

 

So, you see, it is all rather a mystery!

Here is my guess:

  • The original drawings give no indication of a “silver safe”.
  • However, as drawn and as built are often different so the drawings confirm nothing.
  • It seems highly doubtful though that the original architect would have, late in the game, created a silver safe which was so at odds with the rest of the pantry.
  • Thus, I am going to guess that the “silver safe” was created a decade or two after the house was built. But even this does not explain the use of a different wood, a different style door, and the lack of alignment.

Yep, a mystery!

 

 

60 Responses to The Butler’s Pantry: A Deepening Mystery

  1. Ross… I’m think liquor cabinet rather than silver safe!!!! Thus the obviously desperate attempt of someone breaking into it!! And the height of the first shelf. As for the different style?? Not a clue other than the original doors having a hatchet taken to them.

    • Hi, Mary!

      I had not thought about a liquor cabinet.

      However, upon reflection, this seems unlikely:
      1) The upper cabinet would make more sense for a liquor cabinet. No bending down!
      2) A liquor cabinet could have a normal lock. So, the heavy steel bar REALLY wanted to keep people out, which makes sense with $$$$$$ silver pieces.
      3) The TALL open space at the bottom makes no sense regarding liquor bottles but seems ideal for silver candelabra.

    • The Cross House was a frat house, no? Definitely liquor. Upperclsssmen keeping the new pledges out of the booze? Saving up communal booze until the weekend parties? Try a bottle and see how it fits!

      • Two fraternities have occupied the house. One in the 1920s and one in the mid-1960s.

        During that latter period, the Toms family owned the house. They lived in an L-shaped apartment on the first floor, and sub-leased all the rest out to the fraternity. The butler’s pantry was part of their private apartment and, so, no liquor for the young men!

        There was also a sorority in the house during the early 1960s, and with the same arrangement.

        I know nothing about the 1920s fraternity period.

        Also, the three reasons I state above make me doubt that the ‘safe” was intended for liquor.

  2. I’m kind of wondering if originally there were no doors. I know this differs from the drawing, but it would explain the back having the wood and the fixed shelves. …. just a thought.

  3. Here is a thought. If you remove the small strips where the lower doors are attached to the cabinet, maybe there are signs of the original hinge holes where original doors “were” if in fact they ever existed. I believe they did. Looks like the same hinges were used on the existent doors.

      • Me, three! Also, why would they fill in the opening on the left side of the opening while “shaving” off on the right side, just so the doors would be off-center? And another thing: the Cross House was mansion-grade, where even the small bits of hardware that are not obvious were works of art; they would not have used that metal bar, which is basically a piece of scrap-iron held on by a lag bolt. Without seeing it first-hand, my guess would be similar to Ross’ speculation; I think that the cabinet was probably built as planned, and that something happened to damage the original cabinet, although it would not explain the purpose of rebuilding it with so many odd attributes. I think that Ross should keep a record of all the mysteries in the Cross House, and at some date he could host a “Mystery Dinner” where the (paying) dinner guests take a stab at solving a mystery or two…I’d buy a ticket, 🙂

  4. The different wood types can be easily explained… oak is much tougher to breach than mere pine. I agree that the cabinet was likely altered at a later date, explaining the difference from the elevation drawing. A liquor cabinet as Mary suggested makes sense, too… I do love a good mystery!

  5. I think that perhaps I can help with the different wood. Pine is highly aromatic, even years after it’s original cutting. Think “Pine Sol” smell. While it is pleasant and “clean” smelling, it would have a deleterious effect on silver. Note that silver tarnishes easily near aromatic woods, and additionally, Ms. Susan would have had heirloom silver. Heirloom silver is NOT what we have today. Today’s “silver” is heavy plate over copper, but her silver would have been solid silver through and through. Therefore, it would have been extremely heavy, requiring the extra reinforcement of a fixed shelf. Pure silver dents more easily than plated silver, so a fixed shelf would have been a bonus in protection of the pieces. I know that pine does warp and bow eventually, so does the white oak do the same?

    Is it possible that in the original drawings, there was no fixed place for the silver safe? Not until the room was sited and work begun would the safe location have been decided upon? I notice that the bar closure is built with precision as to it’s location. There seems to be NO clearances for a crowbar to be inserted at the bar junction, just barely enough clearance for the bar to swing up and down. If you can’t fit your tool to remove the bar, you can’t gain leverage to pry it from the woodwork. With the pantry situated so close to the chutes, sound would have carried instantly throughout the whole house if there were a break in.

    Just some thoughts about this mystery.

  6. Hmm…a mystery, indeed. I’m going to say the origional doors were aligned with the upper doors and possibly had a discrete key lock built into the front of the doors.
    I would think that a theft would have caused the doors and surrounding wood to be so damaged, that a complete replacement would result.
    In a plaster/lath house, it would be easy to just go through the back wall to ransack the shelves of a locked cabinet. It makes sense to fortify the back wall – if only to slow down a thief.
    I’m guessing the tall space may have kept infrequently used, taller silver things like candle sticks, coffee urns, etc.,. In general, “house money” and probably guns & ammo would be kept in there, as well. It was quite a common thing to keep at least one weapon in the pantry. (It still is, in some places.)
    Personally, I’m not fond of that bar & padlock. It just seems to intrude on the convenience and charm of a well kept space.
    Im loving your refinishing of the beautiful doors. 💖 Can’t wait to see the finished result.

  7. I notice that the elevation drawing in the blueprints shows the doors of the cabinet extending all the way to the floor. This suggests that the bottom shelf of the cabinet was added later, yet I can see that the floor boards do not extend all the way to the back of the cabinet (visible where you removed the quarter-round). Is the current floor the original or was it added to the top of the original? Penny’s thought about the opening having been doorless is also interesting… do the fixed shelves appear to have been added later? Could this have been a finished niche or recess for some specific purpose? Questions, questions…

    • Ross, I’m going to second this one, and it’s relatively easy to confirm- if you are able to remove the bottom of the cabinet, and find finished flooring below, or can see that the back of the cabinet extends down to the floor, it may be that this was designed as a recess with doors, but no shelves.

        • From photographs the shelves do not look any deeper than the others in the pantry, but perhaps this shelf might be deep enough for a folding tray for food service, or cleaning supplies, or some other item that would usually rest on the floor or be long/enough tall enough to need that kind of space.

          I was just thinking about how your home has lots of (for the time) cutting-edge technology and design touches like a telephone room and gas/electric lighting, a call system, etc. It’s all speculation right now but this cabinet could have been purpose built to house something that we have not thought of yet. I do think that the fact that the elevation drawing shows the cabinet doors going all the way down to the floor is an important clue.

          • If it were an open niche, a period tea cart or serving cart would fit in that niche handily. It would also be exactly the item that would be most useful for the space.

      • Thanks for confirming my suspicion about the flooring. Now let’s move on to the surrounding face frame, each side of which terminates on the original floor surface as shown in the blueprint elevation drawing of the cabinet.

        Your last photo above may shed some clues: To the left of the padlock we can see mortises in both a door and the adjacent face frame – obviously the location of an original hinge. If our “mystery cabinet” had originally been built with hinged doors, similar mortise locations would be evident where the face frame appears to have been extended, even if patched at a later date. I see no indication of any. This suggests two possibilities: 1) the lower cabinet was built as an open niche without doors as Penny suggested, or 2) the cabinet was built as we see it today, but the two doors were once taller (cut off at the bottom rail when the new floor and bottom shelf were installed. The elevation drawing suggests that this could be possible. You might check the underside of the two cabinet doors for rough cuts suggesting a later alteration (rougher than the top and side edges of the door).

        It is not uncommon for buildings to have been built somewhat differently from their plans; this cabinet may reflect such a late-stage design change (for whatever reason).

        I also note that the hinges on the door at right appear to be mortised directly into a board which serves as the sidewall to the cabinet; I don’t see a separate jamb or face frame. I can’ help but wonder if more car siding (like that on the back wall) might be beneath this board. This area may reveal more clues as to the probable original configuration; more photos would be helpful. Happy investigating!

  8. I would also think that the pantry was altered later. If you want to mount a security bar the eyelet screw for the lock has to be secured from the inside, I think. So they made the doors narrower to have space for that?
    However I have already seen a cupboard in my life where I wished I was able to adjust the lower shelves whereas the upper ones were adjustable… If you fix the shelves on the wooden sides they can hold heavier items. Adjustable ones may sag and bend and eventually fall down.
    Maybe in the lowest shelf they not only stored the candelabras but also the big centerpiece for the table (made of silver or porcelaine) that was still in fashion (to show wealth) before the turn of the (last) century at least in Germany or a big jardiniere…
    Oh how I want the mystery to be solved!
    Greetings from Germany,
    Meike

  9. I vote for fixed shelves without doors originally. I think a niche without doors. Having oak instead of pine makes sense for silver storage and also fixed shelves without bowing for heavy pieces. I think the bar for a silver safe also makes sense. I think we all have good ideas about the mystery. Love a good mystery! Perhaps someone who lived in the house might have ideas about this mystery?

    • Except the lower door hinges seem to match the upper door hinges, indicating that some kind of doors (maybe not the current doors) were installed below at the same time as the upper ones.

  10. I’m voting for the original cabinet being remade into a liquor cabinet either during Prohibition or the Cross House’s “fraternity era”. My reasoning is that the locking mechanism looks like any old flat bar that’s been repurposed into a “lock”. With all the thought and care than went into the building of the Cross House, I find it difficult to believe this would have been installed so crudely. Original doors may never have existed or were removed for some reason. There could even have been drawers there initially. I’d be down in there trying to pry off one of the boards in the back to see if original plaster exists behind them. Fun to have a mystery!😏

  11. I just noticed the center of the bottom doors looks to be of the same wood as the back of the cabinet. Did someone make the bottom cabinet doors?

  12. I love a mystery! (and I have a lot of thoughts!)

    I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not original – it is just so different from everything else. In fact, it looks like whoever came up with that “lovely” two-tone paint scheme was trying to disguise these differences.

    It does seem like whoever had this built had security as their number one priority and wasn’t really worried about having it all match. That’s why I doubt that it was done during the Cross years. I don’t think, after having just had the house built, Mrs Cross would have been like “whatever, just build a safe any old way.”

  13. This is very interesting. I think I would maybe be taking it apart to see what’s under it for any clues. Sure doesnt seem original.

  14. Part Two!

    Do you know whether the paint contains lead? I know lead paint was banned in 1978, so, if it does contain lead, we at least know it was built prior to 1978 and most likely after the Cross years.

    Maybe when it was turned into apartments or later into a motel. Mr. Mouse Sr. or Mr. Mouse Jr. thought a safe place to keep valuables would be needed. Maybe someone in the Mouse family would know about the safe?

  15. Here’s what I think:

    You said that the plans were drawn differently. Also, I don’t remember this, but i believe there was a post about the doors being different? What if the doors on the top were not original and the top part was just open shelves? This would explain why the shelves are not adjustable.

    • The doors above the “silver safe” give no indication of not being original. They match the drawings and all the other doors, save the “safe” doors.

      The shelves behind the upper doors are adjustable.

  16. What is on the other side of the silver “safe”? Could it be that the wood backing was to help keep thieves at bay? Or, the upper area was plastered to enable being painted to brightened up the cabinet, while the lower one, with silver or porcelains whatnots wouldn’t have stacks and rows of items. The shelves on the lower cabinet look sturdier than the upper ones, showing something heavy was indeed stored there. What is the purpose of the eye hook?

  17. Perhaps when the Cross House was a sanitarium, the butler’s pantry was used as a supply closet, and that cabinet was reworked as a medicine safe for the bottles of morphine et al.

  18. Here is a detail that may support the break-in theory: As Ross pointed out, the lower cabinet doors do not align with the upper cabinet doors. On the right side, the way they do not align is especially odd.

    The vertical piece of trim visible on the right of the upper cabinet doors is missing on the lower. Even if the lower cabinet area used to be open shelves, it seems odd that this piece of trim would be missing because of the asymmetry.

    Therefore, I posit that the piece of trim was there originally. In which case, why oh why would anyone remove it? How odd! How suspicious…

    I will now convert this arresting detail into a tall tale …

    Let’s say the lower cabinet was originally intended to be a silver cabinet. Built for security and protection, the original doors had a lock in the center and were made of white oak (or other wood that does not emit fumes that tarnish silver – borrowing from Dodi’s comment) as were the interior shelves. The shelves were fixed to support the weight of heavy silver items (Dodi).

    The original lower cabinet doors aligned with the upper cabinet doors, and of course that piece of vertical trim existed on the right side. The back of the lower cabinet was lined with wood to foil break-ins (Kim) from the hallway on the other side of the wall. The vertical pattern of the back of the silver cabinet was repeated somehow in the door fronts. That is, the doors of the silver cabinet had special fronts, compatible with the rest of the pantry doors, but somehow unique.

    Mrs. Susan Cross stored heirloom silver items in the locked lower cabinet, secure in their safety. Many years later, perhaps in 1929 while Scout Mouse Sr. was converting Cross house into apartments, someone passing through or working on the house saw the locked cabinet and broke into it with a crowbar. They attacked the hinges on the right side, breaking off the whole door (both doors! joined by the lock) and the vertical piece of trim to which the hinges were attached on the right side. (Ah hah! That’s how the trim disappeared!)

    Walking through the pantry while absorbed with proposed floor plans, Scott Mouse Sr. almost tripped over the broken cabinet doors. Oh no! There was nothing in the cabinet at the time, so the real tragedy was that original doors were too bashed up to be repaired. He decided to have new oak doors built, and saved some fragments of the old doors to inspire the carpenter to use similar vertical design elements in the new fronts.

    Unfortunately, the carpenter was having a bad day when he measured the cavity where the doors used to be. He did not notice that the vertical piece of trim was missing on the right side. He carefully built the new doors to fit symmetrically in the open cavity, adding a thin piece of vertical trim on either side in order to attach eyelet screws for the new steel bar (thanks Meike). Sadly, when he stood back from his work, he realized that his effort to make the doors symmetrical had failed because he had not paid attention to the alignment of the upper doors. “Dagnabbit!” he thought. “Not again!! Next time, I better Measure Twice Cut Once!”. And that is how that saying came to be.

    Years later, perhaps in the ’50’s after Scout Mouse Jr. converted Cross House into the Palace Motel, someone tried AGAIN to break into the curious and forbidden cabinet. THIS TIME, fate foiled the would-be thief! The combination of sturdy oak doors and secure steel bar held off the assault long enough that the assailant heard noises from the dining room, freaked out, and fled! No one noticed the damage or bent steel bar for a while because they were too distracted by the demands of running a motel.

    Thusly we arrive at the curiRossity that meets our inquiring eyes today.

    ** Ooh, while I was writing this, W offered the break-into-sanitarium-cabinet-for-morphine idea. I wish I had seen that so I could incorporate it. Juicy.

  19. What is on the other side of these butler’s pantry mystery doors? With the wood backing and shallow shelves, perhaps the answers lay somewhere behind the cabinet? Is it a passthrough? Ice box? Coal? Some turn of century mechanism we no longer use? Access to plumbing or electrical? Does the bar prohibits entry to other parts of house in the evolution of Cross House uses?

    • My questioning of the wood on the back wall of the lower cabinet that looks like bead board from a kitchen pantry or such is not a suggestion that it is there for security, but more that the out of place wood panel perhaps hides something behind.

  20. Just a bit of stream-of-conscientiousness as I read through the responses:

    –I am not convinced it was a silver safe. Highly HIGHLY unusual in Kansas in a house this size. Silver safes were commonly used in England and the grand estates on the east coast where there was a retinue of live-in help coming and going. The butler kept the key to keep the footmen and housemaids from pilfering a fork or two. Live-in help in Kansas was usually limited to a single woman or perhaps a couple from the community. The tiers of society mixed much more freely and it was probably a neighbor’s/customer’s/fellow church member’s impoverished relation. Not highly prone to stealing. And if they did, where is the market in Emporia Kansas to convert it to useful cash?

    –Your following post shows a lock on the china cabinet. If the silver was in the pantry, what was locked in the dining room?

    –The wood at the back was not for security. This backs up to the entry and they would have had to go through the lincrusta and 2 layers of plaster and lath to get to the cupboard. Quite a lot of very obvious work for an un-pawn-able candlestick.

    –The iron bar was definitely added. The lock hasp is on the extended jam that you pointed out makes the doors not align.

    –The fact that the original doors were drawn going to the floor seems to be significant. Their uniqueness suggests a unique purpose, not a design choice.

    –When the new floors were laid over the original ones, those to-the-floor doors wouldn’t have operated without alteration. If the original use had been discarded, was the cabinet rebuilt at that time with a raised bottom and new doors?

    –Could the shelves have been added when the doors were replaced? What might Banker Cross have used the cabinet for that no one else deemed necessary?

    –I thought maybe it was for a safe that was too heavy for a shelf and needed to rest on the floor. It makes sense that a banker might keep reserves off-site. (I once lived in a banker’s house from the 1880s. He had a grain storage bin at his Main Street home to keep grain used as collateral at the bank). But looking at it again, I think the space is too shallow for a safe.

    –As a previous poster commented, maybe it was for something new fangled that we haven’t thought of yet. An 1890s Roomba?

    BTW–I am thrilled to be having the conversation, because it means you do not have to go to preservation hell for dismantling the pantry.

    • Hi, David!

      I, too, am not convinced that the lower right cabinet was a silver safe.

      But I suspect that it was.

      It does not make sense as a liquor cabinet.

      And I can see no other reason for the heavy iron strap.

      The telling detail is the TALL space at the bottom. This seems ideal for silver candelabra. What else would require such height? I doubt it was used to stack gold bricks!

      The whole “safe” does not appear to be original as it matches nothing else in the pantry. Or anywhere in the whole house! The iron bar appears to be original to the cabinet. Also, the eye hook (left) for the iron bar explains why the left side of the left door does not align with the door above, but there is no reason why the center of the doors do not align, or the right side.

      I disagree that people did not have silver safes in America. The Staatsburgh mansion in New York has a literal safe in its pantry!

      Locks on china cabinets are not unusual. My grandmother had a freestanding china cabinet. It was always locked!

      I agree that the wood at the back was not for security.

      If the original doors had been built as drawn, it would have been effortless to shave a bit off the bottom when a new floor was laid. Indeed, this happened to every door in the whole house!

      The entire “safe” cabinet appears to have been built at the same time: the doors, iron strap, shelves, and wood back. It is possible that it is all entirely original but I wonder if it is from a decade or two later.

      • Oh I’m not at all surprised the Mills Mansion has a safe. As does–I would assume–Biltmore, Marble House, The Breakers, etc. All of which were HUGE houses with full domestic staffs “back east”. I know you have experience with those areas and would agree Mr. Cross was a far cry from being a peer of that ilk. I’m still not convinced there was a silver safe installed in Emporia. Unless it was a vanity thing. I am sure the mystery will be revealed to you in a dream some day, and we’ll all say “Well, of course!”

        Do the Mouse’s have any memory of how that cabinet was used during their tenure? Maybe if you work backwards.

  21. Could the drab brown paint just be the base coat for the painted wood grain? Then they never got to painting the wood grain? Or the pantry was the practice area before doing the rest of the house?

  22. What’s the chances that those wood doors were a later replacement for a steel or iron frame insert with locking metal doors (think inside doors on an antique safe) that either got damaged or outlasted its usefulness? When the house was a tearoom in the teens, would they have had some taller Urns or teapots/table accouterments that would well have required a taller storage space?

  23. What’s the point of the lock and bar anyway the hinges are on the outside, one would only need to pop the pins out. Perhaps the Mouses can help, maybe they did it to store valuables or paperwork. Maybe them darn hippies did it to hide STUFF :). I think the cabinet doors were done later by someone else not the Crosses, why would there be wood on the inside and fixed shelves.

  24. Love this mystery! Another question: What would a screen door latch placed on the ledge between the upper and lower cabinets have been used for?

  25. The Mystery of the Butler’s Pantry Cupboard… we need Nancy Drew et al, STAT! So much fun reading everyone’s theories. ​😁 ​

  26. Is it known with certainty what the original finish was on the pantry millwork? (Sorry if I missed that in a previous post.) Could it have been grained rather than varnished? If graining was the original finish, the oak doors would not have been a problem with the surrounding pine millwork. Do the oak doors share the same layers (sequence) of finish as do the other doors? Have you looked at the bottom edge of the oak doors for any indication of them having been shortened? Inquiring minds want to know! Also, is the width of these two doors identical to the width of the doors above them (even though they are not vertically aligned)? I’m wondering if they were offset to accommodate the installation of the external locking mechanism.

    • Since the panels are som completely different in style I’m willing to bet that these doors aren’t original, regardless of their finish. Why would you have a whole load of doors with inset panels and then just one pair with flush beadboard panels?

      I’m still leaning towards salvage doors installed decades, even a century after the house was built, possibly by a DIYer.

  27. A lot of times a big heavy locking buffet was used to keep the silver in. We still have a beautiful one in the house museum I work at the drawers are lined with the special fabric for silver. I’m sure Mrs. Cross had one for her dinning room in that beautiful home.

  28. yes but yes but how come there are no accommodations for the silver. with sterling, you don’t just open the door and throw it in a pile. there would be velvet lining and slots for everything to fit into and with the completeness of everything that was in Aladdins cave, if the accomodations had been removed, they would have been in the cave. in a house of this quality, a complete siver service would run to several hundred pieces and that’s just the flatware. I don’t think this space is big enough for the silver service the Crosses would have had. in addition to common pieces, there are as many as a dozen different kinds of common spoons and forks and where is storage for the tea set, bowls, tureens, etc.
    nope, not silver – too small and not set up to protect it

  29. plus too low to the floor. you don’t pick out table settings while bent double or mess up your uniform way down there. not accessible enough for silver. flatware would have been at standing level in a slide out drawer and serving pieces and candelabra up on the shelves.

    • The “silver safe”, if that it what it was, would not have been for silver flatware. That would have likely been stored in a sideboard.

      The good china would have been stored in the built-in china cabinet in the dining room, and behind the tall glass doors in the butler’s pantry.

      Small silver items were likely stored in the locked portion of the china cabinet.

      All that might have been stored in the silver “safe” was silver candelabra and large serving plates.

      • maybe but still not big enough. I have a couple ornate candelabra (plate)and they wouldn’t fit in the bottom lying down and,as I said before, there would be an elaborate protection setup. sterling dents and scratches really easy. I still don’t think so and that clunky bar. I can hear Susan Cross spinning in her grave at the very suggestion of it.

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