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Bathrooms in Small Spaces

How to make a virtue of tidy bathrooms in old houses.
By Patricia Poore | Photos by Steve Gross & Susan Daley

    A small room, exotic and treated as a jewel.

    Let’s face it, shall we?—the small bathroom is a fact of life in old houses.

    Even if you follow the advice in today’s remodeling magazines, reworking your floor plan or bumping out an addition to house a master suite complete with sauna, you will still be left with a small second bath or half-bath.

    These spaces are thrifty, simple, and pleasantly old-fashioned. They may even have original fixtures. And they will be no less period-style if you inject them with some personality and color.

    Old-house bathrooms come with space constraints and, as always, limitation breeds creativity. The sloping eave or oversize window may be a blessing, not a curse, if it leads to a unique space. The most delightful bathrooms are often found in houses built during the mid-Victorian period or earlier—because their bathrooms, however historic they may now seem, were installed long after the rest of the house was built. Such bathrooms can be downright quirky.

    Read on to find out more about small-space Victorian, Bungalow, and Mackintosh bathrooms, or learn how to design a small bathroom.

    Victorian Bathroom

    Bathrooms have generally been simple from the beginning, with farflung exceptions: the Victorian parlor–bathrooms of the urban rich; the glassy Art Deco bathrooms that enjoyed a short vogue; the bathroom as California spa. But simple doesn’t mean dull. Even plain white tile can be laid in a pattern or with a border. An antique chest can be brought in. It’s a mistake to think that a small room must be white or pastel. A small room, treated to intense colors and lavishly appointed, becomes a jewel. In a small room, it is easy to create a strong impression, carry out a theme.

    A general rule-of-thumb is that Victorian-era bathrooms included more wood and were more likely to be “furnished” with stylish fixtures, floor coverings, even paint decoration. Early 20th-century bathrooms were most often of the “sanitary” variety: white, tiled, easy to clean. There were exceptions and there’s precedent for almost anything.

    The Bungalow Bathroom

    Bathrooms of the early-20th century were rarely more than simple, functional spaces. By furnishing this bathroom with some of the best of today’s Arts & Crafts reproductions, the owner matched the bathroom to the period of her home, while introducing the color and pattern that today’s revival prefers.
    Read more about this bungalow bathroom.

    Mackintosh Influence

    Lack of space wasn’t the primary problem in this late-19th-century house in New Jersey. The 12 x 8 room was adequate, if small by spa-bath standards. The layout, however, presented a classic old-house problem. The room had been a bedroom; when it became a bath 90 years ago, one of three doors was removed, but the two remaining created a bisecting traffic pattern.
    Read more about this Mackintosh-influenced bathroom.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors Summer 1997


    Marcy October 5, 2011 at 7:01 am

    This is all great, but does anyone know of companies that sell smaller bath tubs than the usual 60 inch ones?

    Jaclyn July 10, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    These bathrooms are supposed to represent “small” bathrooms…Now may bathroom seems especially tiny.

    Sheilah King Watson January 16, 2013 at 11:43 am

    My builders fitted a WC & a corner wash hand basin into what used to be my kitchen larder space. Now that the units have been fitted there is not enough leg room!

    Photos of before and after of a 1903 bathroom March 23, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    I participated in the renovation of a 1903 historic house half bath recently. It was also in conjunction with an adjoining kitchen, which needed some renovating as well. If interested in seeing some before and after photos and comments please contact me at my email address above.

    Catherine July 17, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Hi@Marcy, check out , they have bathtubs that is smaller than 60 inches with very reasonable price:)))

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