Not Your Average Built-Ins

34 Marathon St Arlington Exterior

You know, they just don’t build things the way they used to. Especially in the “average” housing market. Take for instance, this house. Built in 1914 in Arlington, MA, it was purchased by my great-grandparents in the early 1920’s. This house was built as a two-family for the average middle-class homeowner in the early 20th century. My great-grandfather was in the plumbing fixture business. He, James, and my grandmother Mary had two children, my grandfather Ed and my great-Aunt Marion. The first floor was one apartment, the 2nd and 3rd floor attic made up the other. My grandparent’s lived here with my mother when she was born, in the mid-1920’s. My g-grands and g-aunt lived in one apartment, my grands and Mom in the other (I believe the first floor). By the time I came along, my g-grands had passed and my Auntie Marion (by then in her early 60’s) owned the house and lived in the 2nd floor apartment. The first floor apartment was rented over the years to various distant family members, none of whom I really knew because my grandfather wasn’t a fan of his extended family (long story). Auntie Marion, whom I adored and who was my Godmother, never married and lived here for the rest of her life, until she died 1990.

34 Marathon Street victorian built-ins

So, all of this family history is a set up to share the beautiful built-ins that have remained in-tact – until the last real estate listing I can find, in 2023.

There are two images of the dining room – the above which is older, shows all the original stained woodwork, beautiful built-ins with wavy original glass cabinet doors. There was also a pass-thru to the pantry which was just behind it, between the dining room and kitchen.

34 Marathon Street painted victorian built-ins

And in this photo, you can see that someone painted some of the original stained wood. Not bad – it does lighten up the room. The chandelier has been replaced as well.  I’m happy to see that as of that time, the built-ins were still in their original condition. I lived in an apartment in Waltham, MA that was in a similar vintage building. It also had beautiful built-ins with a pass-thru to the kitchen. There was a beautiful gas fireplace with ceramic tile surround and mirrored over-mantle. I tried finding photos, but couldn’t. What’s amazing to me is that these homes weren’t built for executives – they were multi-family homes and apartments. But the woodworking and functional, yet also beautiful, built-ins are always showstoppers. Something we don’t get much of today except at the highest levels of design and construction.

Updated in 2024: the house has undergone quite a renovation which you can see here. The beautiful built-ins have been painted however.  It certainly looks more modern and fresh – there’s no question. And keeping the original woodwork up would be a lot of work. But still – sad to see the last vestiges of my childhood memories in the unit slipping away!

34 Maraton 2024 painted cabs in dining room

When my Mom went through her Aunt’s papers, she came across the original mortgage. The house cost $5,000.00 when they purchased it. It was built in 1914 – so that’s possibly when they bought it.  It last sold in 2012 for $662,000.00 and the current Redfin  estimate  is $1.3 and the rent for the second floor unit is over $4K a month. My ancestors would be shocked.

So, as I said, we don’t get the same level of custom work these days, even in higher end homes. My Duxbury Garden Home project is a great example of this. This is an attached garden home in an exclusive over 55 community.  These homes are not inexpensive, is what I’m saying.

And yet, we have this below:

Linda Merrill design before built-ins cabinet

Yeah, no. I mean, the crown molding doesn’t even fully wrap around!  My lovely clients were avid collectors of antiques and art. A cheesy little wall niche with glass shelves just wasn’t going to measure up. It couldn’t really be ignored but it wasn’t deep enough to be very efficient either.

I recommended that it be turned into a display cabinet with wood shelves, bead board walls (to match the new backsplash in the kitchen) and a faux antiqued “jelly cabinet” door front. Sadly, I never got any really good photos of this built-in. The wall face was painted the same blue/gray/green as the door front to give the appearance of a wider wood cabinet.

Linda Merrill Design Duxbury Massachusetts custom made built-ins
Linda Merrill Design | Scouting photo by Michael J. Lee

And we see a piece of the cabinet and how it relates to the kitchen. Built-ins for the win!

Linda Merrill design kitchen built-ins cabinet
Linda Merrill Design | Photo by Michael J. Lee

I started thinking about other uses of built-ins that are unusual and not the same old, same old.

These are vintage school locker doors which makes for such a gorgeous china display.

Vintage school lockers Country Living Magazine Dana Gallagher photo built-ins
Country Living Magazine | Dana Gallagher photo


This built-in from Magnolia Homes/Fixer Upper came with the house it’s got the patina of something that’s been around and with the patterned back wall, it’s an eye catcher. Scroll through the kitchen photos to find it. It’s beautiful!

Built-ins sometimes takes a little imagination. This side pullout pantry cabinet makes use of a salvaged door. Very creative!

Luxe Living Interiors antique door built-ins
Luxe Living Interiors

I love this elegant, more formal space with the armoire that has been built into the wall of built-ins.

Linda McDougald Design antique armoire built-ins
Linda McDougald Design

Here are some more fun ideas for built-ins:

Linda Merrill designed with AI_A_living_white_living_room_with_reclaimed_wood_built-in
Designed by Linda Merrill using AI

A casual living room featuring reclaimed wood backed built-ins and coffee table. Love the mix of clean cozy white and the bleached woods.

Linda Merrill designed with AI a_formal_dining_room_with_elegant_built-in_cabinets
Designed by Linda Merrill using AI

Here are some gorgeous dining room built-ins with brass inlay in the glass doors. What a lovely way to store and display the good dishes and glassware.

Linda Merrill design by AI fun_built-in_cabinets_in_a_basement_playroom
Designed by Linda Merrill using AI

Here’s a cute painted built-in for a playroom. Great storage and style!

So, whether old or new, faux or true (see what I did there?) – there are lots of creative ways to bring back some gorgeous built-ins in unusual ways.

10 thoughts on “Not Your Average Built-Ins”

  1. These are such beautiful examples of the power of a good built in to really elevate a space! I love what you did with that angled wall atrocity – well done! They definitely don’t build them like they used to! It’s absurd the level of detailing (or lack thereof) in 1$M+ spec homes these days. (and don’t even get me started on the bathroom vanities 🙄…).

  2. I love your designs Linda. My daughter is having her porch on her 1920s home redone, including insulaton and plenty of built-ins for children’s toys. I love the mix of closed cabinetry and open shelving combination in your playroom. Thanks for the inspo.

  3. You have an amazing eye for decorating with “old” stuff. I love all of it but when I try something in my home I rarely think it fits. Wonder if I am just conditioned to have everything “match”.

    • Hi Leslie – Thanks very much! I do think we all worry about how to make things “fit” together with accessories. Sometimes you just have to throw it all out there and then edit down to showcase the best of the best.

  4. OMG Linda, I love all of the inspirational photos here. I am with you, I can’t stand all these sheet rock “niches” I see in homes built in the last 30 years. And that before and after is amazing.

  5. Somewhere along the way, builders stopped building custom built ins and instead put in vaulted ceilings that go nowhere and have no purpose but to use up energy. I love your client’s built in – well done Linda, well done!


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