The Cross House

The Butler’s Pantry: A Mystery UPDATE

The infamous mystery cabinet.



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.


Here is a “typical” section of the pantry, looking down.


The mystery cabinet though is unique in having a wood back, yes, but look how thick the side panels are. They are 1-1/2-inches of solid wood. Huh? Inserted though these panels, and all the way to the back, are steel rods. The one to the left is the eye hook rod, and to the right is the bolt rod. The two long rods hold…


…the iron bar.


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…


…was dashed. The hole I created, just where the eye hook rod would have extended, revealed no rod. Poo. I had thought maybe the rods went all the way though to the wall void, through a solid block of wood, with a big bolt at the end. Or something.


But nothing.

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…


Sorry to interrupt your reading, but something extraordinary just happened!
(Scroll way down…)


















Did you read what I just read?


“….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.

And now?

I need a drink.




23 Responses to The Butler’s Pantry: A Mystery UPDATE

  1. As a reader said before, pine would not be a good wood for storing silver. I like the idea that perhaps it was purchased as a separate complete unit. That would explain why nothing matches. It does seem odd that the hardware is so inelegant, more like something my grandpa would come up with to secure something in his toolshed on the farm. It’s fascinating!

  2. Mystery solved! That’s great that you have an article like that about the house. Does it answer any of your other questions! For example, does it describe the first floor layout – specifically, is the library called a library or described as part of a double parlor, office, etc.. Is there a description of the kitchen layout and/or paint colors in the kitchen? I
    know that was one thing you wanted to know.

    • Hi,Kerri!

      The article calls the library a library, “finished in cherry.” Which is a faux cherry finish.

      The kitchen “is finished in natural pine, with a hard maple floor.”

      • Thank you so much for answering my questions Ross! I don’t know anything about wood finishes, but by saying that the kitchen “is finished in natural pine,” I wonder if that would indicate that the kitchen woodwork wasn’t painted after all.

  3. I am surprised at you find in the news paper article. I would have bet my last dime that it was not original. I am a carpenter and I would never, never, never, have two different style doors in the same room, let alone the same cabinet. It may have been an oak cabinet originally, but I believe it has been altered. When you took off the “add on” stiles what was the wood like on the “original” stiles? Also, were the two pieces of stiles glued? I just can’t imagine with all of the beautiful and high quality aspects of the house that Mrs. Cross would allow something as this.

    P.S. I was giddy with excitement that you mentioned my name again in your post. It’s kind of like I’m a little school girl, “Oh, Ross said my name again, he likes me, he likes me.”😂

  4. I think this necessitates a team of scientists performing radio carbon testing on the wood. Some mysteries just NEED to be solved and we have the science! 😉

    But, for real, my bet is that it was the original silver safe with matching doors and a regular lock that was broken into and the original doors destroyed and quickly replaced with nearly matching (stronger) wood and a big-a$$ metal rod.

    • Hi, Ali!

      The 1894 article states: “a heavy oak locker.”

      The only oak in the pantry is the “safe” cabinet. So, the doors were never pine like the rest of the pantry. They were always oak.

      The iron bar? To me, that is what “heavy locker” means. The writer of the article would not have mentioned a discreet regular lock. But a heavy iron bar? THAT got a mention! Indeed, the tall glass doors on the south wall have a discreet regular lock. The writer did not mention this.

  5. -The statement that the butler’s pantry is finished in satinwood is the key for me. When one intends to apply a a faux finish, using matching woods becomes irrelevant. I suspect that the separate insert idea is the correct one, although having the silver safe in that location may have been afterthought, which was requested after the cases to the other cabinets had been installed.
    -If Squires had intended there to be a silver safe in that location when designing the rest of the cabinets, it would probably have matched the rest. The pine stiles, or uprights, to either side of the silver safe as well as the doors, could easily have been made the full thickness of the stiles and of solid oak. Pine is a great wood, but it is not very strong. Oak makes much more sense than pine for a secure cabinet. The iron bar was needed because, no matter how strong the wood, two doors can be pried open pretty easily. The way that the iron bar hinges and latches to pieces that run through from the front to the back of the thick sides of the cabinet makes it incredibly strong.
    -If you were to go one step further in your exploration from the wall behind the cabinet and cut through and remove the lath and plaster that you exposed behind the sliver safe, I think that you would be able to see more of the cabinet’s construction. You might even find a narrow space between the cabinet and the plaster.
    -It certainly has been a lot of fun following your posts and the comments on this one.

    • Hi, Stewart!

      The pantry never had a faux finish.

      The pantry was varnished originally. The small room would have glowed richly and wondrously, which is why, I suspect, the author of the article stated the pantry was “satinwood”.

      The author describes various “woods” in the house, not realizing that he/she was actually looking at faux finishes.

  6. The theory of it being a separately-constructed cabinet, placed into the space is quite attractive. It would also be consistent with a design change during construction, after Mrs. Cross may have decided the originally-specified pantry cabinets did not allow for secure storage. The oak cabinet could have been shop-constructed for the space and installed into the larger cabinet onsite, which appears to have been custom-built in place (as suggested by the exposed plaster inside).

    Does the outline of the face frame, etc of the “oak locker” suggest it is otherwise isolated from the surrounding cabinetry?

    BTW, the news articles and references you find are fascinating. It’s a whole experience of restoration, mystery, research, and more. So much more interesting than gutting and remodeling!

    Have you read the book “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors” by Henry Petroski? The author goes through a very similar learning process of the many quirks and details in his family’s hand-built cabin. I think you would find it very interesting (and very familiar).

  7. Assuming that the oak safe was indeed original, the different panel style does make sense. The other panels are probably fairly thin around the edges and easily kicked in, while these beaded flush panels are probably fairly sturdy.

    • It’s also possible that it was ordered/built from a different millwork shop as the other cabinet, and they simply had tooling for a different profile.

  8. Is it possible the oak cabinet was purchased from a catalog like other elements of the home? Perhaps marketed as having internal reinforcements of both door and case, making the differences in door styles less bothersome because it provided deliberate advantages…

  9. “Victorians thought nothing of hitting children with hair brushes, brooms, “switches”…and worse things. Other punishments might include depriving the child of food, locking him or her in a CUPBOARD or basement and even making them sleep in barns or outside.”
    I think it’s perfect for noisy children. Besides the silver I think I’d lock the borax and rat poisons in there.

    • Oak is a hardwood, which means that it is from a deciduous tree. Pine is a softwood. It is from a coniferous tree. As a general rule hardwoods are much sturdier than softwoods. Oak is known for its strength.

  10. This is just a random thought, but could it possible have been used as an Old ice box? It kinda looks like the ones they used back then, and most of them were made of oak.

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