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Unique Baths for Old Houses

Those very retro, white-tile baths are attractive, but may not suit every old house. By Patricia Poore

    It's probably the multi-part wall treatment (used above a wood wainscot) that makes this bathroom so suited to the 1901 transitional house. The hex-tile floor, footed tub, and roller shade with lace curtain complete the coherent look.

    It's probably the multi-part wall treatment (used above a wood wainscot) that makes this bathroom so suited to the 1901 transitional house. The hex-tile floor, footed tub, and roller shade with lace curtain complete the coherent look. (Photo: William Wright)

    Hundreds of photos of new and remodeled bathrooms come across my desk every year. Many of them (including those in new houses) have a retro look, with clawfoot tub, gutsy medicine cabinet built into the woodwork, and acres of white subway tile. What’s odd is that this model is not always appropriate in renovation—even though century-old bathrooms inspired the look. The look is consistent, while old houses are individual, with different styles and quirks.

    All this occurred to me as I was shown recent projects by the Chicago architecture firm of Greene & Proppe Design. Their bathrooms—and every one is different— have a furnished quality. (Four GPD baths are shown on these pages.) Each bathroom reflects the house it’s in, because the house itself provided style cues. That’s true in a tiny jewel-box of a powder room designed for a Victorian Queen Anne, and also in a more expansive revival bathroom in an addition.

    In all of the bathrooms shown, character is more important than fidelity to one period. Bathrooms are remodeled and updated regularly, and other reasons for change come into play. When a servants’ bath, for example, is remade as a powder room for guests, it will end up fancier than the original. Notice, however, that suitable bathrooms are most often of reasonable size. They remain in their original location, or are fitted into a traditional floor plan.

    Design guidelines for an appropriate bathroom start with a simple layout of three fixtures, traditional materials like wood and tile, and a mix of freestanding and built-in furniture. Include salvage or an antique to keep the room from looking all-new. Some old-house bathrooms are entirely utilitarian; others pick up colors and style from surrounding rooms. Ignore trends, and let the house guide you.

    Special thanks to Thom Greene, architect and principal of Greene & Proppe Design.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors July/August 2010


    Beth Handler July 21, 2010 at 11:59 am

    These are great bathrooms meant to be integrated into the period and style of the various houses. I would love to see some well designed bathrooms in homes that didn’t originally have bathrooms. My home in Columbia County, NY is a two hundred year old center hall eye-brow colonial with lovely original moldings and beautiful wide-board pumpkin pine flooring. In the 1950s, the previous owner created 2 half baths – one under the staircase and one in a closet, and 2 upstairs – whole baths created from closet spaces with constructed dormers. Our master bath is the most problematic being both small and having awkward angles created by the roof lines. I have been thinking about an eventual renovation incorporating more simple earth tones (colors in our bedroom) using stones or ceramic tiles, and built-in hidden storage — more Zen-like rather than pseudo “period.” What do you think? It would be great to see how others have solved this problem!

    Lois Muller July 21, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks for a good article on old home bathrooms. We found a fiberboard surrounding our claw foot tub when we bought this c 1823-1860 homestead. We have since removed that and will repaint the underside with the same green that was there. The mirror on the cabinet is very old but still quite good. We added a shower curtain surround bar from the beadboard ceiling, but are still seaching for ways to connect a flexible shower hose to the existing plumbing. We are trying to keep it close to the period styling while upgrading to our needs. A challenge but fun. This is an Acadian home so it does truly guide us in our choices. Thanks again.

    Lee July 21, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    My 1860′s house didn’t have plumbing originally but we took our cue for the bathrooms from the Renaissance Revival furniture of the period that is in the adjoining bedrooms. One bedroom has original white Cararra marble tops on everything so we used that extensively in the masterbath. Another bedroom has slightly later walnut furniture with red/brown/pink marble or granite tops. I couldn’t find that exact tile but I found marble with the same colors. It was amazing to later find that I had an old marble clock with the same marble as the ‘new’ tile I bought. In that bath we took an old dresser with a top matching the brown/red granite and had a hole cut for a sink ata granite fabricator. Then we had a storage cabinet made of hickory which looks a lot like the old walnut. Put in some antique lamps, comb holders, and other old accessories and you have a room that isn’t original but COULD HAVE BEEN there if modern plumbing was around. The last bath uses slate. Again, it could have been done built that way.

    Patricia Poore July 21, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Thanks for the feedback on my bathrooms article! I lived in a gently updated 1840ish house once, with the best bathroom I’d ever had: very spacious, cross ventilated with nice windows, timeless in a sort of 1930s movie way, with great wallpaper that continued from walls over the painted wood wainscot onto the sloping eaves to cover the ceiling. Why so nice? The house had been built before indoor plumbing, so this bathroom had once been a bedroom.

    But Ms. Handler’s scenario is common: WCs or tiny bathrooms tucked under stairs or into a closet. Simple and Zen is probably best — although the “jewel box” approach, with rich colors, perhaps tile or marble, and period lighting, turns the smallness into an asset.

    Lee had a wonderful idea when he used the Renaissance Revival furniture to cue the bath. It almost always works to have the bathroom (or kitchen) take cues from adjoining rooms and the period of the house. Then again, I’ll never forget a house I visited in Chicago, with a pitch-perfect restoration of the Victorian Queen Anne interior, then the jaw-dropping surprise of an all-glass seafoam and black Art Deco bathroom behind an oak door, installed by a 1930s owner who got an inheritance!

    –Patricia Poore, Editor

    Catherine Seiberling Pond July 21, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Hi Patty,

    We are desperately trying to find a place that will reporcelainize (not paint-on/glaze) an old farmhouse sink by taking it down to its cast iron base (sandblasting, I presume) and refiring it. A place I contacted in Illinois near St. Louis is only working with steel now.

    Do you know of any place in the Midwest or South where we might be able to take our sink? We will drive most any where.

    Desperately seeking farmhouse (and sink),


    Carter July 24, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    We had ours fixed in Hohenwald, TN. The man did a great job on our massive sink.
    P.S. he also sells old sinks and tubs.

    Dennis Wallach July 29, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I recently installed an American Standard Champion 4 “Oakmont” round front toilet in my c.1895 home. The best flushing water box I have ever come across! But the main reason for installing this unit was its great old house appearence and style, right up to flushing handle. . . This one has old house written all over it! . Check it out.

    James McPherson September 2, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Every issue offers new insites into old house renovations and repair. The Nov-Dec issue did it for me. I finally found what I would like to use in the renovation of our bathrooms. Is a better (close-up) available of the floor tile on page 28, second row far right (green and white tile)? Also, I plan to install beadboard wainscoating. From what I see in peroid photos, many are high, maybe 4 or 5 feet. Customarly, how high were these bathroom surrounds?


    Jim McPherson

    Clare September 13, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    We checked with our source for the tile image, and directed us to the original catalog for sale on eBay. Or, if you’d like to purchase just a scan of that page, he suggested contacting Jeanne Breslin at Vintage Catalogs directly.

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