photo via House Beautiful
When Bunny Williams and her husband built their vacation home in the Dominican Republic, the design included this “china room.” At 13 feet wide by 16 feet long, (nearly as big as my actual kitchen) the cabinets have sliding glass doors and are lit from the inside. Ms. Williams was quoted as saying: “We love to entertain, and setting a table is so much easier when you can see everything! With that island in the middle, I take things out and experiment: Wouldn't this green leaf plate look great with those purple glasses?"
When I came across this article in House Beautiful, I immediately showed it to my husband and informed him that this is the china closet that I
want need someday. I have only a few vices; one of which is antique and vintage china, crystal and silver; oh and pewter, too. (There are several others, but that’s a topic for another day.) This “habit” is a source of contention in my house, but, like any addiction, I can’t help myself….
My first knowledge of a china closet or “Butler’s Pantry” was as a teenager in the Bay Area, and this was it. It is located in the Filoli estate in Woodside, CA. Filoli was built for Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn, prominent San Franciscans whose chief source of wealth was the Empire Mine, a hard-rock gold mine in Grass Valley, California. More recently, the exterior of the house was the setting for the television series, Dynasty.
From the Filoli website:
“From the staff's viewpoint, the Butler's Pantry was the operational heart of the house. This room was used to plate and serve the food, wash and store the china and stemware, and to polish and store the silver. A family member would press a button which would ring a bell and light up the board, indicating the room location, and someone would be sent immediately to that room. The cupboards and safe contain a variety of plates, glasses, pewter and silver. The dumbwaiter in the corner was used to send food and laundry to the second floor. The center table has practical storage for linens in drawers that go all the way through the table. The plate warmer is an original appliance.”
I recall feeling completely awestruck by that enormous safe for the silver. I could just imagine living so graciously and have dreamed of that way of life since. (You know, champagne taste on a beer budget….) At the very least, it sparked in a younger me, an interest in the collection and care of fine china, silver and crystal.
The airtight silver vault in the Copshaholm estate in South Bend, Indiana
The pantry that adjoins this vault features a sink made of German silver; a soft alloy of copper, nickel and zinc, which reduces the risk of breaking the dishes during washing. I imagine a copper or stainless sink might be a suitable alternative today.
Traditionally located adjacent to the kitchen or wine cellar, butler’s pantries first became popular in the 18th century and usually contained counters or tables and sinks and sometimes provided additional food storage. In Europe, butlers often slept in the pantry as their job was to keep the silver under lock and key. The wine log and merchant’s account books were sometimes kept in the butler’s pantry.
photo credit: Peter Woloszynski
Today, butler’s pantries are often located in a short hallway between the kitchen and dining room This allows for easy access to china, linens, glassware and silver and provides a surface to stage meals and set out drinks. An added benefit is that the central location can provide a sound barrier between the chaos in the kitchen and the meals being enjoyed in the dining room.
Tucked between the kitchen and dining room, this space has a wine bottle rack and hanging storage for stemware. It would make an ideal space for setting up a temporary bar.
Here, in what appears to be a converted mudroom, a dishwasher and prep sink have been included, allowing for easy clean up and storage. Cabinetry reaches all the way to the ceiling, maximizing storage.
In this more contemporary pantry, architect Joeb Moore includes a Viking undercounter refrigerator and ice maker flanking the sink. The Sub-Zero wine cellar on the left holds 132 bottles. Stock medical cabinets store glassware and china.
This is the butler’s pantry in the White House, circa 1920. Love the sliding window cabinet doors, the tall crown moldings and the brackets “supporting” the wall cabinets.
After an update in the 1950’s: The sliders have been replaced by hinged cabinet doors and the counters are stainless steel. The lighting has been updated to banks of fluorescents (yich…) The overall look is definitely in keeping with the era.
And a more modern photo. Still functional, but a much less charming version of it’s earlier self.
This small pantry area includes one of the “must-haves” for my next kitchen—an integrated espresso machine. I happen prefer these large shallow drawers to a typical base cabinet configuration. I find that drawers are as useful as shelving (with the exception being the storage of very tall items), and infinitely more accessible.
photo credit: Frances Janisch
More walk-in china closet than butler’s pantry, this design by Suzanne Kasler is genius. I adore the built-in glass front displays on either side of the doors—showing off a favorite collection. The displays could easily be swapped out seasonally.
Here again, a walk in china closet combines beauty and function.
photo credit: Simon Upton
If space doesn’t allow for a full pantry, why not consider a “butler’s wall”? An elongated storage system spread along one wall, it can provide many of the benefits of a more formal pantry. To lessen the footprint, base cabinets can be ordered 18” or 21” deep rather than the standard 24” and the distance between the wall and base cabinets doesn’t need to be 18”. The wall cabinets could sit directly on top of the base or, as pictured above, designer Jason Bell opted to leave about a foot of space between the two. The great thing (and one of the biggest problems) with cabinetry is that there are so many options.
This charming butler’s wall belongs to designer Suzanne Rheinstein. A library ladder is a wonderful addition—especially if you run the wall cabinets all the way to the ceiling.
Unfortunately, the only place in my home that I could refashion into a butler’s pantry is my laundry area—and in my house of boys, reducing laundry capacity is strictly not an option. So, I’m left holding my dream of having a china room like Bunny William’s. Maybe someday…..