Designing a Timeless Bath

Two hands-on restorers transform a played-out bath into a bright, beautiful, period-inspired spa retreat.

Since 2011, Alex and Wendy Santantonio have been blogging about the restoration of their 1880s brick row house in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.

Christopher Zimmer

Photos courtesy: Alex and Wendy Santantonio (except as noted)

An epic undertaking even for two experienced DIYers, the new master bathroom in our 1880s row house took years of planning and labor—not to mention numerous emotional meltdowns as we second-guessed decisions and occasionally each others’ judgment. Cold in winter and hot in summer, the large but oddly shaped space began with a passageway though a closet, with a direct view of an ugly bump-out for ductwork on the far wall next to the only window. To the left was a shoddy vanity with a mildewed tile counter; on the right stood a massive jetted tub /shower combo with a broken stopper.

Remarkably, we used this nightmare of a bathroom daily for more than a decade before finally achieving our vision: a master-bath spa that looks appropriate in a Victorian-era house, complete with a marble mosaic hex tile floor, white subway tile shower, and a high wainscot of painted white beadboard finished with a moulded top rail. Blowing out the closets (we relocated them to a bedroom) meant we gained enough space to comfortably accommodate a large, two-person shower, a double vanity flanked by floor-to-ceiling cabinets, and a vintage clawfoot tub. The most luxurious touch is the shower, fitted with two 12” rain-showerheads bought years ago, when plans for our new bath were still just a sketch on a paper napkin.

Now outfitted with a bath caddy and European-style “telephone” shower, the salvaged clawfoot tub was a cheap find, but an adventure to move up two flights of under-engineered stairs.

Christopher Zimmer

We also repurposed a vintage late-19th-century bureau into the marble-topped double vanity of our dreams, and restored an antique cast-iron clawfoot tub found on eBay for $150. We built the custom cabinets ourselves. Thanks to Alex’s obsessive attention to detail, the four lower cabinets are fitted with pull-down laundry bins that each hold almost exactly a single load of laundry. Although that aspect of the project took much longer than we expected, the results were worth it.

Every day, we wake up looking forward to taking our showers. The large and luxurious frameless glass shower has a panoramic view of the bathroom, so we can enjoy everything that took us so long to build. One of our favorite features ended up being something you can’t even see: The radiant heat under the floor is wonderful on cool mornings, when tile would be painfully frigid on bare feet. In the middle of winter we’ve found ourselves lingering in the bathroom just enjoying the warmth. Temperature-wise, it’s now the most comfortable room in the house.

The couple revel in taking showers under the 12” showerheads they bought when renovation was still years in the future. At the time, however, the lack of an in-between size sparked an intense exchange between the married authors.

Christopher Zimmer

This is not a project that came together quickly or easily. Our “bargain” vanity cost us countless hours reinforcing it and trimming it out in a way that suited our vision and our budget, for example. On the other hand, the angled and beveled mirror that perfectly complements it turned up in Wendy’s inbox—on sale!—in an email blast. She all but tripped over it.

Some last details still need attention before we declare the bathroom complete—we’re looking for polished nickel keyhole covers for the vanity—but we’re both very happy with how the bathroom turned out.

Alex compares a 12” showerhead from Restoration Hardware with a 6” showerhead in the guest bath. By the time the makeover was complete—too late for this project— the store had begun offering an 8” head.

Bathroom Design Tips

> 1. Scour all resources to find just the right fixtures, materials, and construction approaches to fit your taste and budget.

> 2. Talk through every design decision with your partner.

> 3. Measure, measure, and measure again before buying.

> 4. Do trial runs on design elements that may seem insignificant but have big impact, like grout color for a mosaic hex-tile floor.

Radiant Heating

“No longer do we fear stepping barefoot out of the shower, or making a midnight trek to the loo without slippers. Since the bathroom is much longer than it is wide, we decided to install a radiant heating element in the primary walking lane down the center of the floor. • “Not only did we get a chance to perfect our self-leveling concrete skills (for more on that, see the blog, but the radiant strip from Warmly Yours is also more than adequate to keep the floor toasty, our feet warm, and it even adds a little heat to the room.”

Grey Paint

“We knew we wanted a dark grey grout for our 1″ hex tile floor, but initially came home with grout that was second-lightest on the color chart. Fortunately, this wasn’t our first grout rodeo, so Alex mixed up a little bit of thin-set. Paying no attention to the fact that we were spending a beautiful Friday night to test grout colors, we popped the cork on a sparkling wine and did some experimenting on a sample board.

“As the grout began to cure, the formerly perfect shade of grey transformed into a color that looked almost white next to the stone tile. The next morning, we swapped the light grey grout for the darkest shade, testing it on our trusty sample board over an outdoor lunch. This one looked too dark.

“Frustrated but determined, we headed to a big-box store (there goes Saturday night) in search of more options. We found a color called “Delorean Gray,” named for one of the most famous time machines ever created. On the test board it started out quite dark, but the next morning the color had dried to that soft medium grey we were searching for.”

Moving a Salvaged Tub

Cleaned, primed, and painted, the cast-iron clawfoot tub they’d picked up for a song a decade ago was finally ready to be moved up two flights of stairs. The two had dreamed about and dreaded this day. For Wendy, fear grew so overwhelming (what could go wrong, moving a 350-pound behemoth?) that she couldn’t be home. So Alex supervised the team on the day of the event. “I have to admit I smiled when the first guy got to the tub and said, Wow, you mean, this is all solid metal?” Alex remembers. “ I said, Yes—yes it is. That’s why we called you.”

With one man on either end of the tub and a third as spotter, the team made it safely up the first set of stairs. The next flight was more treacherous. Not only were the stairs steep and narrow, but Alex knew they were unsupported at the back. He advised the men to step only on the front of each step, and the team moved slowly upward.Then the lead carrier lost his footing—nothing terrible, but enough to stop forward momentum. Alex flashed back to when he was helping two others carry a massive piece of tempered glass. The lead man took an awkward step as they passed through a doorway, causing a ripple effect that allowed the edge of the glass to strike the door frame. The glass exploded into pieces.

“I remembered that huge explosion as I watched the tub begin to shift backwards, down toward the first floor,” Alex shudders. All of the weight of the tub shifted onto the rear carrier. Potential disaster flashed before his eyes. But the spotter tailing the two carriers planted his feet and put his shoulder against the lowest man, shifting his momentum forward. That boost steadied the rear of the tub—probably only two seconds, though Alex says his vision of the tub crashing down onto the movers, through the floor, and back to the basement was so “vividly realistic.” He came away impressed by the professionalism of the movers. “And that’s why Wendy didn’t let me do this job with a friend,” Alex concludes.

Affordable Marble

“Needing just a few pieces of custom-cut Carrara marble for the vanity and shower bench, we were astounded to receive quotes that averaged around $2,600. This, for two smallish counters plus trim that could easily have been cut from waste marble. It worked out to about $160 per square foot.

“Discouraged, to say the least, we decided to shop further afield after a friend told us of her experience sourcing affordably priced marble—well outside the Washington, D.C., Beltway.

“A serendipitous trip to Chantilly, Virginia, led us to The Stone Studio. After we met with the owner–manager, he worked up an estimate based on Wendy’s rough sketch. It said $1,250—just $1,250!—and included measuring, fabrication, delivery, and installation. We had avoided the dreaded Beltway markup after all.”.

Vanity from Salvage

Thinking of transforming a vintage buffet into a bath vanity? Expect complications. At minimum, you’ll need to:

• Plan for a plumbing chase—two if it’s a double vanity.

• Lower the height (typically 36″–37″) to the more comfortable 33″–34″ usual for pedestal
sinks and vanities.

• Rebuild and beef up the framing around new plumbing.

• Tighten structural joints, especially if you plan to add a stone countertop.

Tags: bathrooms OHJ February 2018

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