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Mint-condition 1940s kitchen a true labor of love

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Mint-condition 1940s kitchen is true labor of love
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Orville and Ruth Merillat.

Even more than meals, memories are made in the kitchen, Merillat Cabinets reminds us.

That couldn't be more true than in this birch kitchen. Its charming retro look at the recent Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas stopped passersby (including your faithful Yahoo Homes correspondent) in their tracks.

Except it turns out the kitchen isn't just retro-looking: It's essentially an original 1940s kitchen, meticulously restored and preserved. (Click here or on a photo to go to a slideshow.)

Orville Merillat and his wife, Ruth, hand-built the kitchen for friends of theirs about 70 years ago in Adrian, Michigan -- where they went on to establish a woodworking company that became America's biggest cabinetmaker.

The kitchen stayed in the same home for decades, until Merillat employees tracked it down, pulled the cabinets out of the house (replacing them with new Merillat cabinets, of course), reassembled the kitchen, and presented it as a surprise for Mr. and Mrs. Merillat when their company turned 50 years old in 1996. Employees have since carefully maintained it.

All of the cabinets are original; they've been touched up but otherwise looked the same then as now, including the color. (The countertop had to be rebuilt -- it originally had metal edging, according to the fabulous Retro Renovation blog -- and other elements were replaced but are correct for the time period, the company says.) The cabinets even had adjustable shelves -- a common feature today, and one that all Merillat cabinets include to this day, but a relative rarity in the 1940s.

The Merillats were in their 20s and had not yet started their company when they built the kitchen in the early to mid-1940s: He built the cabinets in three or four days, and she finished and top-coated them in a day or so.

Orville, a woodworking apprentice at the time, joined the wartime Coast Guard and sent back all but $1 of his $151 paychecks to Ruth, who worked in a factory making bullets. When he returned, they used their savings to start Merillat Woodworking. Jack Damon, the 18-year-old son of the kitchen's owners, became their first employee.

Orville and Ruth Merillat were by all accounts an extraordinary team. She kept the books so he could focus on production. "As it turned out, she is a natural businesswoman, and I wouldn't have wanted to run the company without her at my side," he wrote in his autobiography.

In an extensive 1999 profile of Orville Merillat published a few weeks after his death, Merillat Industries executive Rob Meyers told the Adrian Daily Telegram that a conversation "never, ever" passed without Orville praising Ruth. "Orville always gave as much credit to Ruth as he took for himself. 'Don't forget Mrs. M': Orville said it every time we were with them socially. 'I would not be here were it not for her.'"

His autobiography "glows with his love for his wife," the paper said.

They were married 58 years, until he died.

Merillat Cabinetry suffered during the housing crash and recession, with factory closures and layoffs, but is now returning to its roots and its founders' principles to rejuvenate the brand.

The restored 1940s kitchen -- which Kitchen and Bath Industry Show attendees were invited to enter and touch -- is a way "to bring this heritage to life," the company said.

Click here or on a photo above for a slideshow. And here's a video that Merillat Cabinetry produced for its brand renewal:

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