How I learned to like our bathroom

The old bathroom, featuring avocado tub. (Photos by Susan Barnett)

I hated our main bathroom on sight. 

We bought an old farmhouse in Delaware County three years ago, and there are a lot of things about it I love. It’s one of the prettiest little farmhouses I’ve ever seen. There are roses everywhere. Three massive maples stand in front like friendly sentinels. The views are long, and pretty much exclude other houses. 

But inside? Oy.

The whole house was “updated” in the Sixties, and that means dropped ceilings, paneling, wall-to-wall carpeting, and boxed-in fluorescent lights. But the biggest abomination, in my opinion, was the main bathroom.

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Like most old houses, the bathroom was probably created out of what was a closet. A wall was moved to make it a little bigger, creating a weird jog in the upstairs hall to access the bathroom and the nearby bedroom. 

And from there it just got worse. They removed the stairs to the attic, which went into that former closet. They installed pull-down steps over the main stairs, ensuring that the local paper will someday print “Local Woman Dies In Christmas-Decoration-Related Fall.”

They put in one small window on the north side of the house. To call the light “anemic” is overstating the case.

They added a half-wall that split the newly created little bathroom in half, and put the tub on the dark side.

And then they put in the tub. The plastic, avocado-green tub.

I hated that bathroom. I hated the narrow closet they created on one side of the stupid tub. Its only function was to show you where the pipes had frozen on the coldest day. I hated the exposed insulation and mouse poop in there. I hated that stupid half-wall that made the tub side of the room as dark as a root cellar. I hated the cabinet they made where the stairs used to be. It had nothing but a big hamper in the bottom that we never, ever used. 

But most of all, I hated that tub.

I’m not hard to please. Give me a light, airy room and an old clawfoot tub and I’m a happy camper.

So this year, as a gift to myself for surviving 2020, I tackled the bathroom. 

Not surprisingly, it fought back.

I salvaged a pedestal sink from the side of the road. I found a small clawfoot tub for sale behind a house in the village. I found a stall shower that looked like an industrial phone booth. It looked like it belonged in Paris, somehow, and I wanted it desperately. But I didn’t buy it, and it turns out that was a good thing.

My daughter-in-law is an interior designer. She gave me great ideas for how everything might fit. But the dimensions of the room are so weird, so off, that everything felt crowded no matter how we rearranged things. And budgetary constraints meant the toilet had to stay where it was. The sink couldn’t move far, either. Moving plumbing is expensive. Adding a window was out of the question. So was tile. This had to be fast to fit into the contractor’s busy schedule. And it couldn’t cost a fortune.

My dream bathroom simply wasn’t going to happen in that space.

I spent hours online, talking it over with my partner, and we finally reached a less-than-satisfying decision. I ordered a shower kit that would fit the space occupied by the avocado tub, sadly gave up on my Parisian phone-booth shower, and regretfully told the clawfoot tub that it would be living in the garage for awhile longer.

Our local contractor finally showed up to start work three months later than expected. He’s busy. 

And then the real fun started.

He took out the half-wall and the tub. I clapped as they left.

The author’s bathroom, mid-renovation.

He removed part of the wall shared with the adjoining bedroom and discovered that the wall created when the bathroom was expanded is held up not with wall joists but with chain. Lots of heavy chain. Some genius had decided that rather than build a proper supporting wall it would be a good idea to run six lengths of chain from the floor to the attic.

“I’ve never seen that before,” he said.

I’ve since been told by a licensed home inspector that that is a very bad idea, as it puts extra strain on the roof. But that’s a project for another day.

Then he started putting everything back together. He sheetrocked the walls. It was a raw space, but it was easier to envision what was coming, and it was a definitely improvement. We were ready to preview the floor. He put down a piece of the waterproof “wood” floor I’d bought. He put the pedestal sink against the wall. We all stood back and looked.

“I hate it,” I said, looking at the floor. 

“Yeah, it looks cheap,” my partner agreed.

So I hauled six boxes of flooring back to our big-box store and exchanged it for hardwood.

The wainscotting went up, and my plans to paint it suddenly seemed like a mistake. Once wood is painted, it’s forever. So I got some stain and got to work. My job was to stain and paint over the weekend so the floor could go down Monday.  

On Monday, we were ready. I’d chosen a dark stain, thinking it would be a great contrast with the light walls.

“It looks like a saloon,” partner opined after considering for a few minutes. 

“He’s right,” contractor agreed. Then he laughed.

I couldn’t shake the saloon picture. The stain had to go. So after a long weekend of staining and poly, I got out a piece of sandpaper, roughed it all up, carefully covered the new floor, and primed, painted, and painted again.

I went with bread dough white on the wainscotting, and a pale gray that almost looked blue on the walls. It tied in to the light gray shower surround. It looked good with the white sink. It was bright. It was clean. I liked it! Hallelujah.

Meanwhile, our contractor’s usual partner wasn’t available to provide an extra pair of hands, so his wife stepped in to help him. She climbed up and down the stairs as her husband barked instructions, and her usual sunny smile soon faded.

“I may kill him,” she panted. 

The work continued, and so many things turned out to be, um, not as expected.

The shower floor isn’t supported thoroughly, so it wobbles a bit. The house is so crooked that the floor by the bathroom door is a full two inches higher than the far corner of the room. Despite leaving insulation in plain sight, we’re pretty sure there’s no insulation behind the shower wall, meaning that we’re going to be cold this winter. 

The plumbing for the sink was so odd-looking that I sent a picture to our friend, our favorite Kingston plumber, just to ask for advice. It offended his sensibilities. He drove two hours to get here, and he redid it.

The finished product.

It’s done. The mirrors are up, lots of them, which makes the most of that one, sad window. The towel hooks are in place, and except for some lingering complaints about our water pressure and two different shower heads we have an updated bathroom. I like it. Mostly.

The tub is still in the garage, and we’re making plans to create a spot for it in a window in the adjoining room. It means taking down a wall between bedrooms, creating a dressing room. There’s just no way to expand the bathroom without creating something even weirder than what’s already there, so the bathroom is what it is. The tub gets its own room.

The house wins. We are learning to work within its limitations. 

Ever since that tub showed up, all we want is a bath. I’ve never wanted a bath so badly in my life. 

Home improvement is such a good time, right?

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