From the bench: The silent partnerThe desk dominated the corner office at the law firm for generations.
Synopsis: The desk dominated the corner office at the law firm for generations. Built by Dick Evans’s father, used by father, son, and daughter, it has witnessed endless meetings, interviews, phone calls, and big deals.
It sat gleaming darkly in the big corner office of the law firm, precisely where it sat for a half century. It dominated the room, regardless of who was also there. It was formal and traditional, of figured cherry, rich with moldings and leather panels on top. It was the senior partner’s desk, and it was made by “my old man,” as I casually referred to him when I was young (but not after I started at the firm).
Sometime in the ’50’s Dad had became a partner in the firm and eventually he ascended to a corner office with a breath-taking view. Rather than buy a desk befitting his advancement, he decided to build one. The kind of desk he had in mind would have been improvidently expensive. Besides, he was a marvelously skilled cabinetmaker, an amateur only in the sense that he didn’t sell any of the furniture he made in his spare time, although he could well have done so. He could make just about anything of wood, and his output was prodigious. Over the years he’d made most of the furniture for our home, some of it of near museum quality. He’d built a summer cottage and the furniture for it, as well as pieces for me, my sister, and friends. He built a 19-ft. sailboat with me as assistant. (Characteristically, he was interested solely in the building of it. He sailed in it only once.)
How he arrived at the design for the desk I don’t know; I was away those years. But whatever the origin of the design, it is magnificent. It is a partners desk of the old style, with drawers on opposite sides. The original idea was that two partners would work facing one another so that each could keep close watch on the other’s doings.
He made the desk in his basement shop, working in the evenings and those weekend hours when other men played golf. When it was complete, Dad discovered that the desk was so big it wouldn’t fit inside the elevator to get it up to the office. The top, with its shallow drawers, was separable from the end cabinets, but even then the top wouldn’t fit in the elevator; it had to be carried on the top of the elevator, next to the cable. Someone had to ride up there holding onto the desktop with one hand and the cable with the other as the elevator was inched up, floor by floor.
Dad made a classic mistake in building the desk: He glued the drawer runners onto the cabinet sides instead of using screws in slots. The grain of the (unusually wide) sides was oriented vertically; the drawer runners were of course horizontal. In the high summer humidity, when the sides swelled, attempting to expand crosswise to the drawer runners, something had to give, and it was the sides. Dramatic cracks appeared in them, accompanied by noises like gunshots. This caused surreptitious hilarity in the office once people figured out the cause. But the cracks only enhanced the desk’s appearance, making it seem older and antique.
The desk outlasted Dad. He died prematurely at 61, “with his boots on” as they say of a lawyer who dies in the middle of a law case. After Dad died, I inherited the desk. For a while I had a sort of guilty feeling, sitting behind it. By rights he should have been there, not me. But I suppose using the desk, like driving a Rolls Royce, was too good a feeling not to enjoy, and I loved it. A project just became more important to you when you worked on it at that desk. After some years I developed a smug pleasure in putting my big feet up on it at the end of a long day, to wind down. I used it for 25 years, far longer than Dad had.
Now it has outlasted me, too. It seems to age more slowly than its users. When I retired it was unthinkable to bring the desk home. It was only right that it remain at the office. Eventually it went to our daughter, now a partner at the firm.
I like to think of all that desk has been a silent partner to. It’s been privy to endless meetings, interviews, phone calls, and has sat in on occasional big deals. Acres of blueprints have been spread out on it, mountains of documents stacked around its edges. Champagne has been spilt on it during celebrations of some wins, and bourbon during postmortems after some losses. All of this has given it an “I’ve been around” patina.
It’s nice to imagine that someday, perhaps a hundred years from now, the desk might still be in daily use somewhere. Maybe in a quiet moment the person sitting behind it will wonder who made it and who used it years ago.
Dick Evans is a retired lawyer living in Chatham, Mass.
Photo: Kevin Brenner
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