You’d never believe it, scanning the high-end decorating magazines or visiting a bath fixtures showroom, but some people are perfectly happy with their small bathrooms. Usually, these people live in old houses. Theirs is not the spa bath with his-and-hers vanities and a marble sauna. Old-house baths, big enough for one occupant at a time, are efficient, easy to clean, and—well, seemly.
Houses built right through the 1970s probably don’t have the room for a luxury bathroom, unless they have an added master suite, or a bedroom has been taken over. (The latter is common in houses built before plumbing came indoors.) Nevertheless, an existing bathroom of modest size can be made to look good and its capacity stretched.
Solutions include built-in cabinets, furniture, and enclosures; making use of nooks and low walls; choosing small fixtures; maximizing space with a few design tricks; and unifying the room with fixture style, color, and finishes.
Even in the bathroom, a period-inspired approach results in a unique space that’s charming regardless of size. Oddly enough, you may have inherited the white subway tile, wood wainscot, capacious sink, clawfoot tub, deep linen closet, or old-fashioned medicine cabinet that are coveted in today’s mansion-size bathrooms. The bathroom familiar from the early 20th century works well in almost all houses (since the basics haven’t changed much since), but the room can be rendered cottage, classic, Victorian, or bungalow style depending on your decorating choices.
A Bit of History
In the English fashion, early American bathrooms often had three separate chambers (the WC or toilet, lavatory or sink, and bathtub). Though these spaces were utilitarian, they often included deluxe fittings: a sculpted porcelain toilet bowl with a glossy mahogany seat, marble countertop, brass or nickel taps. In wealthy and urban households, the main bathroom was tiled. Wood wainscot lined walls in country houses and secondary baths. Built-in linen drawers often were tucked into a corner. Later, floral papers and curtains in the Colonial Revival taste added charm to plain white rooms.
What we think of as a Victorian bathroom actually lasted through the 1910s. Clawfoot tubs were fashionable until at least 1910 and popular until 1920 (after which they were frowned upon). Plumbing was reliable by the 1920s, and the tub could be enclosed. The separate shower was an expensive luxury early in the 20th century. In most cases, the bathtub was plumbed with a shower apparatus, a model that survives today.
The bathroom exploded with color during the late 1920s and into the ’30s. First came colored field tiles (often used with a black border or bullnose); then, in 1927, plumbing manufacturers introduced fixtures in such colors as orchid, black, mint green, and pink. The still eye-popping Jazz Age bathroom was born when all that flashy color was joined by angular Art Deco or rounded Streamline-style fixtures and lighting.
4 Strategies for Small Baths
1. Gain Space
Sometimes you want a larger bathroom—for multiple users, to include both tub and shower, or because the existing room is a Victorian-era water closet. If adding a master suite is not under consideration, you’ll have to borrow space from another room. Best bets include taking over the smallest bed-room, absorbing an adjacent closet, or encroaching into the stair landing or hall, which are often spacious in old houses.
2. Maximize Space
Using glass expanses—for the shower door, or even the linen closet door—allows the eye to see to the full perimeter of the room. Large mirrors expand the perception of space. A pedestal or console sink reveals more of the floor area. A flat wall unit can replace the clunky old radiator. A spacious shower with a seat is more usable (and more space-efficient) than a bathtub; tiny sink basins and corner sinks and toilets are widely available. (Sunrise Specialty has a 54″ slipper tub; most are 60″ to 68″.) Wood strip flooring or linoleum tiles, laid on the diagonal, make a room feel bigger, as does a floor of small tiles.
3. Find Storage
Build cabinets or shelves into wall spaces between studs. Use a vanity cabinet with hidden storage under your sink basin. Conversely, choose a wide pedestal lav to hold toiletries, along with glass shelves. Taking a cue from pantry and kitchen, build tall, shallow cabinets from countertop to ceiling. Make liberal use of old-fashioned hooks, rings, train shelves, tub caddies, and towel bars.
4. Create a Jewel Box
A tiny room is an opportunity to overdo it without spending a fortune (or overwhelming the house). Don’t go “all white” in an attempt to make the room feel bigger; it won’t. Instead, consider wallpaper or a papered dado or wood wainscot, color on the ceiling, art tile (or an exotic tiled floor), period or art lighting, and custom woodwork.
Old-house bathrooms are not perfectly preserved; over time, practical owners have fixed them up, painted them, added and deleted. Such rooms are believable and functional because their owners responded to an existing bathroom (and presumably to the house). In a gut renovation or new construction, it’s too easy to succumb to the excess spending and up-to-the-minute look aggressively sold through advertising and showrooms. But limitation makes for creativity. A modest bathroom will have evolved, with, say, a reproduction light joining a ’40s radiator and ’20s tile. These bathrooms have some quirks.
And that’s the best thing about them. They truly belong to their houses. A kitchen-and-bath designer today probably would not specify a new bathroom like those shown on these pages. They are too small, too one-person; doors and windows break up walls; floor space is taken up by radiators or furniture. Still, these rooms remain usable, and each is one of a kind.
So paint in your favorite wall color, replace a tired floor, add period lighting that improves illumination. But when it comes to size—and the three basic fixtures—better to leave well enough alone.
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