Original Period Built-Ins

Bookcases and buffets, inglenooks and china cabinets, window benches & more: original built-in furniture from any period inspires new work today.
Wood Built-In for Period Home
Left: This period phone nook is an original that was restored and then relocated to the living room of the 1940 house.
Right: A window seat is built in as part of the formal woodwork flanking the fireplace in a 1777 house in Massachusetts. Photos: William Wright / Eric Roth

Immovable built-ins are part of the architecture, contributing to the look of the house as much as the staircase or mantel does. They take up less space than standard furniture, especially if they are recessed into walls. They don’t need to be moved during cleaning. Built-in furniture is ideal for a small home, whether it’s a period bungalow or today’s tiny house. Built-ins also serve the modern desire for uncluttered interiors. The idea is not new. We find built-ins in every era and house style. Some are simple or traditional, some drip with design and craftsmanship, and some are a little nutty. Here we look at a few originals. 

Carved shell corner cabinets come to mind, as do dining-room sideboards. Benches and built-in window seats appear in every period—in a Georgian parlor, a Queen Anne turret, a bungalow window bay. Mid-century  Modern houses and Ranches often have sleek built-ins, not only in the kitchen but also in the bedroom. 

There is precedent for almost anything. When adding new cabinetwork, just be sure to use the  design vocabulary that goes with the house’s age, style, and degree of formality. When in doubt, simplify a design rather than embellishing; and avoid back-dating.

The fervor for built-ins reached a peak during the bungalow era—when many houses were just 800 or 900 square feet, wood was abundant, and joinery was done by machines. During the 1920s, especially, seeing how many “space-saving features” could be built into the house became a minor obsession of house-plan companies and builders: Witness bookcases in the colonnade, a buffet in the dining room, linen cabinets in the upstairs hall, plus phone nooks, fold-out ironing boards, slide-away benches, convertible wall beds . . . it went on and on. Even the millworks catalogs offered ready-made built-ins. In fact, you can study vintage catalogs for endless design ideas. (Start with APT’s Building Technology Heritage Library, an online resource. Search “millwork catalogs” and specify years of interest at archive.org/details/buildingtechnologyheritagelibrary)

No longer can we order up a stock built-in for just a few dollars. A custom-build is the way to go today. You’ll need a designer familiar with period details, along with a carpenter or cabinetmaker who does good work. Many interior designers have a go-to woodworking team. A large built-in, especially, will add character as well as storage to the house. A piece made of paint-grade wood will cost less than one made with a fine hardwood to be given a clear finish.

“Consider how and where the piece will be built,” says Mary Ellen Polson, author of Trim Idea Book (Taunton). “A cabinetmaker, for instance, will usually create the piece in a shop, then custom fit it after assembly. A carpenter may build it right in your living room or bedroom, which turns your house into a job site.” 

Polson suggests inquiring  about (or specifying) construction techniques, asking for mortise-and-tenon joints, for example, rather that butt joints or splines.  As with freestanding furniture, the stronger the joinery, the longer the built-in piece will last.

Built-ins can go almost anywhere. Obvious locations include the kitchen and bath, of course, as well as a pantry or a mudroom, which might have anything from open shelves and cubbies to “lockers” and fitted closets, along with a bench seat. We often assume that built-in kitchen cabinets date to the mid-20th century. Actually, a built-in base cabinet or tall pantry cabinet was common in Victorian and early-20th-century kitchens, as are pantries fitted with drawers, lower cabinets, and glazed upper cabinets.

Following householders in the past, consider other unused space to accom-modate built-in furniture: deep drawers
built into the sloped area under eaves, say; cabinets or pullouts in the vacant spandrel under a staircase; a tall book-case or china cabinet next to or flanking a chimney breast.

Finally, look for evidence of a built-in that may have been removed. Colonnades were torn out during changes in taste; patched flooring and “ghosting” on the walls may suggest where one once stood. A breakfast nook may have disappeared during kitchen renovation, or even turned into a powder room. Look for clues!

vintage built-in murphy bed
In a 1915 house in Portland, Ore., the secretary desk hides a pullout bed on wood wheels. The secretary and bed are original. Photo: Linda Svendsen Archive

Odd Examples of Built-Ins

Beds that slide into wainscots, attic stairs that unfold from a closet, foldaway ironing boards—we’ve seen them all. (Perhaps the strangest was a kitchen banquette/bed that converts to a one-person “sleeping porch.”)

Wood Built-In for Period Home
In Mill Valley, California, the dining room with its wall of built-ins is original in an uncannily preserved Arts & Crafts Bungalow.
Photo: Douglas Keister

Built-Ins for Dining

Impressive built-ins evolved from backless,  shallow cupboards that stood in Colonial keeping rooms. In the 18th century, the cupboard moved to the parlor used for dining, to become the renowned corner cabinet of the Georgian and Federal periods. These featured fine millwork and carving and most often had  display shelves over closed storage.

The Victorian era saw built-in, glazed china cabinets matching the fine hardwood used for trim—this in addition to a fully fitted-out butler’s pantry connecting the kitchen to the dining room.

The heyday of the dining-room built-in was arguably ca. 1900–1930, when Arts & Crafts Bungalows, American Foursquares, and Tudors often featured a massive built-in buffet or sideboard, complete with linen drawers, display cabinets, counter space, and a mirror. The sideboard might even incorporate a specially shaped radiator that doubled as a plate warmer. Bench seats, too, often are built into dining rooms.

Wood Built-In for Period Home
Left: Expert woodworking and carving is on display in the rear parlor of the ca. 1804 Captain Elias Davis House in Gloucester, Mass.
RIght: Original millwork includes a curved, carved inglenook in the parlor of an 1892 Queen Anne in the Midwest. Photos: Eric Roth / David Heide Design Studio

Built-Ins for the Living Room

With a raised back and narrow bench, the inglenook is both a throwback to Colonial times and a signature element of Arts & Crafts rooms. The idea was popularized by late-19th-century architects working in the Shingle and early Colonial Revival styles. Boston architect H.H. Richardson sometimes gets credit with importing the idea—fixed bench seats, usually on both sides of a fireplace—from England, but built-in seating has no clear time of origin.

Bungalows and related styles often have a colonnade separating main rooms; pillars sit on built-in display cabinets, open bookcases, or fold-down desks.

Wood Built-In for Period Home
In an 1888 Eastlake Victorian owned by just one family, the library retains glazed, built-in, bird’s-eye maple bookcases with a fall-front secretary. Photo: Eric Roth

Built-Ins for Bedroom and Study

period bathroom with built-in vanity
Vanity, wall and base cabinets, and a mirror with crown moulding are built in at the 1886 Haas–Lilienthal House, in San Francisco. Photo: Douglas Keister

Although less common than in dining rooms, permanent furniture such as secretary desks, bookcases, and vanities were built in as part of the woodwork during the 

Victorian period and later. Even closets could be quite elaborate, as compartments along one wall or as a full, separate dressing room with built-in drawers, wardrobes, and mirrors. Upstairs, a linen cabinet with pull-down doors and multiple drawers served bedrooms and baths. Bigger houses of the 1920s are likely to have such amenities.

Built-Ins for Kitchen & Bath

The fitted kitchen with continuous base and wall cabinets became standard in the 20th-century postwar period. Many houses had built-ins earlier, though, particularly after ca. 1890, if only a single large pantry cabinet in the kitchen. In urban and estate houses, Victorian butler’s pantries were built decades before; these are easily adapted for kitchen, bath, or mudroom today. The breakfast nook was a popular feature in bungalows ca. 1900–1940.


Wallpaper: Adelphi Paper Hangings
Designer David Heide Design Studio
Wallpaper: Adelphi Paper Hangings
Museum: Capt. Elias Davis House, ca. 1804
Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, MA
Lanterman House, La Canada Flintridge, CA P
Haas-Lilienthal House, 1886, San Francisco

Related Resources:

Architectural Components
Custom wood millwork, windows, doors

Crown Point Cabinetry
Custom, period-inspired cabinetry & built-ins

Driwood Moulding
Hardwood mouldings in more than 500 profiles

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