The Cross House
Who knew that, when I wrote about a mystery regarding one cabinet in the butler’s pantry of the 1894 Cross House, y’all would become so…excited.
Theories abounded! Arguments were made! Fist fights broke out! Doors were slammed!
OK. Perhaps I exaggerate.
But, after much discussion, the mystery is no more resolved today than it was at the beginning. And, at this point, I am resigned to the mystery remaining as such.
The mystery cabinet is a mystery because:
- It is made of, it seems, white oak whereas the rest of the pantry is made of pine.
- The two doors are of a different style than all the other doors in the pantry.
- The two doors do not align with the doors above.
- The cabinet has a wood back whereas the rest of the pantry has plaster wall backs.
- The cabinet has a heavy iron bar across it, clearly intended to protect something of value.
- The lower part of the interior has 24-inches between the bottom of the cabinet and the shelf above. Why this TALL space?
The fact that everything about the mystery cabinet is unique could be explained by its being installed well after the house was built. But what was it used for?
To me, the obvious answer would be: silver safe:
- It seems unlikely that the Cross family had no silver; ditto with later families.
- Locking silver up when not in use was a common practice.
- The TALL part of the interior is ideal for silver candelabra.
But what seems obvious to me was rejected, with gusto, by some readers.
Some thought it was a liquor cabinet. I wholly discount this for three reasons:
- The upper cabinet would make more sense for a liquor cabinet. No bending down!
- A liquor cabinet would have a normal lock. But, the heavy iron bar REALLY wanted to keep people out, which makes sense with $$$$$$ silver pieces.
- The TALL open space at the bottom makes no sense regarding liquor bottles.
Penny wondered if the cabinet had been, originally, an open niche, thus explaining the wood back. Dodi then wondered if the cabinet was a niche, perhaps it was for a tea cart? I did not think the space would allow for a cart (being about 15-inches deep) but Dodi slapped my doubt silly with: “Ross dear, my tea cart is 13″ wide…” So, a contender!
Architectural Observer was curious if the two doors, which do not align with the doors above (doors which are clearly original) were at least the same width? They are not, being a little over an inch wider, overall.
W asked: “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.” A provocative idea which would explain the iron bar although not the TALL part of the interior.
I learned this by cutting into the sides. I expected to find a hollow space behind 3/4-inch thick side panels. Instead, I found solid solid solid, and my saw thingy also hit the steel rods.
Then I wondered? Did the rods extend all the way through the back and into the void of the wall behind?
Oh! I was sooooooooo excited about this possibility! Racing back to the Cross House, my theory…
Thus, after much ado, and much discussion, nothing.
However, something Chaz suggested stuck in my mind: was the mystery cabinet built when the house became a tea house? This made sense to me. For, it would:
- Explain why the mystery cabinet did not match anything, if it was built later.
- A tea house likely would have had silver.
- A tea house would have needed a secure place to store silver.
But when was the house converted into a tea room? The teens? The 1920s? So, I pulled out a huge binder of research material on the house complied by the previous owner, Bob Rodak. And found what I was looking for:
So, Mr. and Mrs. Varnum purchased the house and, in 1925, planned to open it as the Elms Tea House. Note this: “All new furnishings, china, and silver have been bought.”
Eureka! All new silver was purchased!
So, Chaz was correct!
Then, as I started to close the binder, I instead began re-reading an article on the house when it was brand new…
“….and a heavy oak locker.”
A heavy oak locker.
This, from an article when the house was brand new.
So, even though the “tea house theory” explained the mystery, perfectly, the 1894 article seems to confirm that the mystery cabinet is, it seems, 100% original. This discovery of course does not explain why the entire cabinet matches nothing else in the pantry but over the decades I have learned that old houses often have inexplicable aspects to them.
It is possible of course that the original “heavy oak locker” was later rebuilt. But one nagging clue seems to refute this.
Several readers wondered that, if the oak doors were from a later date, and not in alignment with the original pine doors above, was there evidence of the original hinges on the face frame? I looked. There is zero such evidence. And this is when I began to wonder: IS the mystery cabinet original?
In conclusion, based on the 1894 description, and the lack of alteration regarding the hinge locations, I now believe that the mystery cabinet is original. I cannot explain why it matches nothing else. I cannot explain why its doors do not align with the doors above. Perhaps Susan Cross and the carpenter came up with the cabinet, leaving the architect, Charles Squires, out of it? I had this happen to me when I had an architectural practice in New York City years ago. “We didn’t want to bother you!”
The 1894 article does not explain what the “oak locker” was intended for, damn, but a silver safe is, IMO, still the most likely explanation. For, what else explains the 24-inch TALL space at the bottom? What else explains the need for an iron bar?
Oh, the Cross House has another mystery, too. You can read about it here.
I need a drink.