Laurel craftsman refurbishes legal icon Thurgood Marshall's desk

As a long-haired teen growing up in the 1960s, Jim McCullough had little clue what he wanted to do with his life, but two things did stir him: He hated the way some people in Laurel, his hometown, looked down on his African-American friends, and he loved using the wood lathe in shop class.

He has traded the hippie locks for a grandfather's trim goatee. He long ago gained renown in the region as a master furniture craftsman, at times for his work on pieces used by government officials from presidents to attorneys general. And he recently finished a job that joined his early passions.

McCullough, 59, just spent seven weeks restoring a desk once used by Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore native who famously grew up to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice and a giant in the civil rights movement.

The 1930s piece, a 48-by-84-inch behemoth of mahogany, maple, walnut and poplar, now resides in Marshall's onetime office at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, where it has become the workspace of Donald B. Verrilli Jr., the solicitor general of the United States.

"Before Jim came and got that desk, it was a wreck," says Myriam Skelly, the Justice Department space management specialist who hired him for the job. "When he delivered it, I was stunned at how beautiful it is. He's an artist, and that's one of his finer works."

In a career marked by work on historically notable pieces, this one had special meaning for McCullough, a Beltsville resident whose four-man company, McCullough Furniture Services, is based in Laurel.

He says it was interesting to get close to a figure who did as much as anyone to end legal segregation in the United States.

"Even when I was growing up, African-Americans had to use 'colored' drinking fountains," he says, taking a break in the cluttered, 2,000-square-foot warehouse he uses a mile or two from where he grew up. "That drove me crazy. And there were a lot of slurs. It wasn't all that long ago."

Chat long enough with McCullough, and you'll be struck by the passion underlying his quiet delivery. He'll give a thorough tour of his ongoing projects in his shop — the antique steamer trunk that bears decals from Ellis Island, the Victrola whose wood cabinet needs refinishing, the scuffed-up chair he's fixing for retired Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the onetime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a longtime client.

He'll pull out his smartphone and flash hundreds of images of past jobs, including a 1930s radio whose walnut cabinet he helped restore and some damaged molding he replicated in plastic.

But he's just as interested in the more mundane stuff, like the fire- or water-damaged cabinets he's returning to usable shape, often treating them with a $1,000 ozone generator that removes the nastiest of odors.

"I love working on historic pieces," says McCullough. "But I get just as much pleasure when a moving company tears apart 20 offices and I [refurbish] the furniture. To me, everyone's an important customer."

McCullough has always been at odds with what didn't seem right. He remembers getting into fights as a young man, defending friends against racial slurs — and his father supporting the position, even when it got him into trouble.

"At the time there seemed to be the good people and the bad ones, and it wasn't hard to tell them apart," he says.

He was also a crusader in his work. In 1972, he was hired to drive a furniture truck, but as he looked around his employer's warehouses, he saw remaindered furniture he believed could be restored. He showed a knack for sprucing up damaged tables, chairs and desks, and his company sold them for modest profits.

He spent the next 13 years teaching himself how to patch gouges, join tongues and grooves, realign wood veneer and even re-create lost skeleton keys — an art he says dates back to the 1600s and is still relevant today.

"We can't live without modern technology, but we don't dispense with the old-world ways," he says.

Over the years, as he worked for a succession of local companies, McCullough built a reputation as a man who took care with historic pieces and had the patience, expertise and fondness for the past needed to restore them to their former glory.

He has touched up doors at the Commerce Department, refurbished paneling in the Dolley Madison House, rehabbed a massive desk once used by Oden Bowie, Maryland's 34th governor and the man for whom Bowie, Md., is named, and built an upright desk for former U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a piece still in the office of Gonzales' eventual successor, Eric H. Holder Jr..

McCullough rarely met those who would use the pieces, and he tells of being "whisked in and out" of their offices so he could do the work, but he did have one brush with living history. After finishing repairs to some furniture at the White House, then-President George W. Bush asked to meet McCullough and his crew.

"He spoke to all the Hispanic guys in Spanish, and when he came to me, he said something like, 'You did a hell of a job.' It was kind of cool," McCullough says.

So was working on the Marshall desk, which one of Skelly's staffers found covered in cobwebs in a Justice Department storage area a few months ago.

How it ended up there, Skelly says, she has no idea, but it was so banged up that she figures no one guessed it once belonged to the great jurist, who served as U.S. solicitor general for two years before ascending to the Supreme Court in 1967.

During that period, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued for the government, likely fashioning many of his written arguments on the desk's top, a layer of mahogany veneer strips aligned in a sort of resonating "V" pattern atop a slab of poplar.

He also seems to have beaten it up with use, leaving gouges in the top, gashes in the wooden fluting surrounding the knee well, dents in the drawer fronts and plenty of unsightly sun bleaching on the four-inch strip of walnut that forms the perimeter of the top.

McCullough's four-man company, which includes his sons Brian and Tim, brought the desk back to the Laurel workshop, where the boss carried out most of the fine restoration work. He filled in the gashes, re-covering them with mahogany strips aligned to the existing grain; removed and replaced damaged fluting, using razor blades and sandpaper to match the original, and spent five days with an artist's paintbrush creating a faux grain pattern around the bleached outer edges.

He also popped open an old lock, replacing it with a more user-friendly one, and found a notepad with Marshall's crest and a bag of hard candy inside.

He and his sons then added a three-inch riser so Verrilli, a rangy man, could fit comfortably below it.

The work took about 40 hours altogether, McCullough says. The bill: about $2,400.

The government sees it as a great investment — the new user included.

"Jim McCullough has done a terrific public service in restoring and preserving this important historical artifact," Verrilli wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "Because of his fine craftsmanship, I am now able to do my work every day sitting at the same desk the great Thurgood Marshall once occupied. What an inspiring privilege that is." 

McCullough feels the work gave him a personal glimpse of the legal icon, a man said to have suffered few fools gladly as he helped secure the promise of equality for a wider range of Americans.

For one thing, the only part of the desk the craftsman found in mint condition was the part that faced Marshall's guests.

"Either he had no visitors, or they were scared to get too close," McCullough says with a laugh.

Read more Prince George's County news:

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad