Restoration of Culbertson Cabinet Designed by Greene and Greene

©johnipekjian2015

By: Jack Ipekjian

This is a breakfront cabinet from the Cordelia Culbertson House designed by Greene and Greene. Three base cabinets and three upper cabinets interlock to form this commanding piece which stands 7 1/2' tall and 12' long. The primary wood is mahogany with oak escutcheons and ebony drawer pulls as well as ebony edge banding on all the doors and drawers. The doors and drawers are veneered book and butt matched crotch mahogany with stave-core pine substrates.

Several months ago, this cabinet came into our shop for repairs and refinishing. Years ago it was sold from the Culbertson House and eventually came under the ownership of Warner Brothers Studios. Apparently, it was stored in their prop department. Unfortunately, the cabinet suffered severe abuse.

Damage

On most of the cabinets, WB identified the individual cabinets with printed serial number stickers. But on some they went as far as actually branding the cabinets with a WB branding iron. 

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The six cabinets had been taken apart and dragged around on the ground (possibly on asphalt or some other course surface). This is evident by looking at the bottoms of the cabinets.

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One of the most unfortunate things to happen to the cabinets is that they were sprayed with a semi-opaque brown lacquer. This severely masked the beauty of the figured mahogany.

The question of refinishing an antique of this caliber was thoughtfully considered. There were some sections where original finish had been left alone. We determined the original finish consisted of a treatment of ferrous sulfate, a tinted paste wood filler, stain, and an oil-based varnish. We left the few unadulterated sections alone. We chemically stripped the lacquer off.

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chemically peeling off lacquer

This photo below shows the improvement in grain clarity once the lacquer "paint" was stripped away.

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Some sections had broken or missing parts. For example, we replaced various missing pieces of molding.

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Another unfortunate example of mistreatment is shown below. In order to black out the inside of the cabinet for filming purposes, the prop department stapled some sort of curtain to the inside of the glass doors, leaving unsightly holes.

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As we've seen in many other Greene and Greene designs, the doors on these cabinets hang from a series of individual butt hinges. It is not one continuous piano hinge

.

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Hinge Detail

The hinges were also sprayed with lacquer. Many of the doors were very difficult to open because the hinges had essentially been glued together by the lacquer. Thus, the hinges also had to be stripped, disassembled, lubricated, and put back together.

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There are 256 hinges in this cabinet

These are tight-pin hinges. However, the makers tapped the pins to slightly protrude out of the barrel allowing them to engage with the adjacent hinge. This is a clever way to keep the hinges aligned.

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Because the hinges needed to be completely disassembled in order to properly strip and clean them, this meant that we had to measure the amount of projection of each pin and return it to its original position so the hinges would once again properly mate each other.

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We flattened the point of a nail and used it to tap the pin out of the hinge.

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Inexplicably, most of the hinge pins were bent. This was another factor causing the hinges to be too tight when trying to open the doors. A quick tap with a brass hammer helped straighten them out.

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Note degree of curvature in pin

Design and Construction

The basic construction of the cabinets consists of a series of bays made from front and back legs connected with rails. These vertical sections are connected together with webframes housed in stopped dados within the rails of the vertical bays. The webframes are notched at the front and act as rails dividing drawers and doors.

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The design of the glass doors marks a departure from earlier Greene and Greene motifs.

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Mullion Detail

Despite the abuse the cabinets received, it is impressive how the mullions and glass have held up. Note the delicate scale of the mullion.

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1/8" thick stops

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Book & Butt Matched Door Panel

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Crown Molding

Conclusion

Part of what makes this particular piece of furniture particularly noteworthy is the fact that the overall design exemplifies an innovative synthesis in aesthetic. The piece successfully blends traditional English and American furniture elements, such as the use of book&butt matched veneer panels, cockbeaded drawers, and crown molding with the evolving style of the Greenes. Had this piece originated early in their careers and the Greenes drew inspiration from traditional design simply due to a lack of experience, it might not be as significant. But here, in the aftermath of the ultimate bungalows, Charles deliberately chose to include more traditional features while expanding the vocabulary within his design arsenal. While we do see some characteristically "Greene" motifs, they evolve and go beyond a hackneyed style, beyond a literal interpretation of another epoch's contribution, and into something truly original and unique. This change continued after the house was purchased by Mrs. Allen/Prentiss . The Culbertson House designs challenge the notion that Greene and Greene can be categorized as a particular style based simply on ebony pegs, cloud-lifts, and bread-boards. Additional attention to the penultimate and final chapters of the Greene's careers would help us to better understand and fully appreciate their contributions to American art and design.