Unique Baths for Old Houses

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

It's probably the multi-part wall treatment (used above a wood wainscot) that makes this bathroom so suited to the 1901 transitional house.

It's probably the multi-part wall treatment (used above a wood wainscot) that makes this bathroom so suited to the 1901 transitional house.

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.

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