Vanities of the Bath

Of sink cabinets plain and fancy.

Marble, fir, and reproduction hardware make a new cabinet by

The pedestal sink has become a symbol of the period bathroom. Historically, though, wall-hung sinks and bowls set into cabinets were more common, and popular for many more decades, than pedestals. But just try to buy a period-style sink cabinet! Most ready-made “vanities,” kitschy in particleboard and laminate, have no place in a restored house.

I faced this challenge in my own house. I wanted to suggest its 1904 date, and I wanted cabinets to hide the usual unattractive stuff. On both counts, pedestal sinks wouldn’t do. The necessarily limited range in reproductions did not suit my transitional house, once a summer home. Time for some creativity!

In my case, no original bathrooms existed in the house (or, from what I could gather, anywhere in the neighborhood). Therefore I did what I wanted—within the bounds of budget and good taste, and with the constriction inherent in knowing way too much about old bathrooms. In the powder room, budget (I admit) suffered on account of my insistence on historical fidelity. Since my days in brownstone Brooklyn, where built-in Victorian vanities grace the little dressing rooms between bedchambers, I had coveted a wood cabinet with a marble top. Dave Leonard at The Kennebec Company helped me design one appropriate to this house (above); it’s plain and made of fir rather than mahogany or oak. ( It was the white marble, which I had a local stoneyard dress and install, that broke the budget. It was worth it.)

We added a bathroom, too, when we moved into part of the attic. Its beaded boards glossy with orange shellac and low-ceilinged dormer nooks made these odd rooms look like a ship’s cabin. Only half-consciously remembering a sink we’d seen on the historic schooner moored in Gloucester’s inner harbor, we came up with a porcelain bowl over a mahogany top on a bow-fronted fir cabinet.

So, I’ve found, inspiration can be personal; it can come from a book or museum house (or museum boat!). Traditional, high quality materials are timeless; wood and marble, porcelain, brass, and tile give a period feel even when used in a highly individual way.

Having trouble fitting your sink into a small space? Check out our tips on how to design a small bathroom.

Tags: bathrooms cabinets OHI Summer 1999 Old-House Interiors Patricia Poore Vanities

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