Friday, March 9, 2012

Room with a Bath

I live in a house with nine bathrooms, although my life isn't as opulent as that might sound. The house is rented and whereas the rent is cheap, keeping this behemoth afloat costs about 12% more than I actually earn. It's a good thing I love it, since life here is a series of catastrophes interspersed with workweeks in Manhattan during which, for reasons unknown, I long to be back.

It is a classic big old house, of the Hudson Valley Victorian persuasion, built by a nineteenth century German immigrant made good. Actually, he started with an existing farmhouse, now buried beneath the porches and towers, then enlarged it repeatedly until it achieved its present 38-room total. The interior is full of tasty old house details, like this large stone fireplace, located in what we call the Front Room. On frosty winter weekends, this baby can go through half a cord of hardwood all by itself.

My house also has an abundance of wood paneling, frequently accented with stamped leather panels. Some of the latter are drooping, Dali-esque. However, we know many attractive people who are drooping a bit too. I always associate wall sconces with old houses and happily I've got an abundance of them too.

There were originally more painted canvas ceilings than exist today, but enough have survived.

The cast iron radiators, although rarely on, are themselves decorative objects.

This is the sort of house that has portieres, a term that non-plusses most adults under thirty...

...and wonderfully ugly Victorian chandeliers like this one, which hangs over an open three-story stairwell.

There are push-button light swiches...

...and glass door handles...

...and a real ice box - as in, it used to be cold because of the blocks of ice stacked in the back of it. My ice box has two Carrera-glass-lined compartments, one with a window onto the drive. There is a separate exterior door for loading ice. We use it as a walk-in pantry today.

In spite of all this charm, inconveniences abound. For instance, the doorbell. It is completely inaudible from any location in the house because it only rings in the butler's pantry.

Missing pieces are everywhere. With all that's going on in my life, how soon do you think I'll get around to replacing the missing panel in this third floor closet door? Answer: no time soon.

There is an average of 1.2 light plugs (sometimes less) per room

Need I add that heating the place is basically impossible. Well, that's not quite true. My landlords recently installed a pair (not one, but two) of high speed oil-fired boilers. Were I to keep them both roaring away at full tilt and filling the single zone of steam radiators that extends over 14,000 square feet of floor space on four stories, I suppose I could keep it pretty toasty in here for around thirty grand a year. (Not happening).

Among the paramount charms of my house, however, are the bathrooms. Just last week on these pages, I lamented the loss of vintage bathrooms in an old house in New York. Well, mine are all still here. In fact my house is a veritable museum of the American bathroom.

It is a grand tradition in old WASPy families to not replace things that work perfectly well. This is especially true with towels and linens, but often equally so in houses.

For example, here is a perfectly terrible design for a toilet paper dispenser. The original would have been a tin box holding individual sheets. This replacement accommodated the arrival of toilet paper in rolls. To refill it, one must insert a pencil into the side of the thing to dislodge a metal spindle that runs through the center of the wooden roller. Innumerable opportunities then ensue to fumble spindle, roller or paper while trying to get the damn thing back together again. works, and it's also an antique.

You wouldn't be the first to have second thoughts about sitting here. (Something about those seams...)

The Inodoro is indisputably the worse toilet bowl design in the history of modern plumbing, for reasons I leave you to deduce. Flushing it precipitates a roar capable of stopping conversation in adjoining rooms.'s an antique too.

Most people think bathrooms are a twentieth century development. Not so. By the late 1870s indoor plumbing was standard equipment in middle class custom built houses and even in spec built rowhouses.

Just as beautiful - and far more practical - are the original sinks in my house. "Waterworks," eat your heart out.

The half bath located off the Front Room has a radiator that looks able to heat half the house.

A bit of tile detail in that powder room.

Here's my bathroom. I brought that sink with me from Tuxedo Park thirty years ago and could not imagine loving a piece of sculpture more.

The medicine cabinet lost one of its doors over the years, which doesn't bother me.

Now this is a real tub. And a real shower, even though it's needed a piece of electrical tape wound around a spot by the spigot since 1981.

Old tiles had sharp edges and were set flush against one another. Modern "subway tile" walls do not at all have a correct period look, if that is the idea.

Just before the First World War, a final enlargement was made to the house, this third floor bathroom being a part of it. It's the most modern in the house and in my eye constitutes a veritable gallery of industrial art.

We tried like hell to save the high tank toilet in the bathroom above, but eventually - and very reluctantly - had to take it down. The toilet in the image below is also on the third floor and works like a charm. OK, that's an overstatement, but it works.


  1. I also like the idea of living in a large house, but unlike you I was never able to make it happen.

    So many great period details, especially (in this post) in the original bathrooms. My favorite detail here is the nickel-plated claw-and-ball foot on the sink--so charming it brought an instant smile to my face.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Another fascinating post, thank you. I knew a family who lived in a rambling mid-19th Century house in northern Westchester County, NY (I believe it had once been a roadside tavern/Inn). Their solution was to simply close up large parts of the place in winter; they mainly lived in a huge combination kitchen/living room wing on the back.

    I love that oval pedestal sink that you brought from Tuxedo park. My childhood dentist had a similar one in his office bathroom (in an 1850s Italianate house in CT). As a kid, I was fascinated the rubber drain plug attached by a long metal bead chain.

  3. Amazing...I love how 'unrestored' and authentic everything is. Thanks for the very candid tour.

  4. We moved from NJ to St. Louis in 2008 - and were seduced by a c. 1902 Renaissance Revival - full masonry construction... She was a Grande Old Dame complete with her original galvanized pipes...and 4 1/2 baths that were in mostly original condition. Nostalgia was getting me nowhere and it was time to bring her up to the 21st century. I did a major renovation/restoration last year - and she cooperated beyond my dreams!!! I gutted three bathrooms - staying as true to the original architect's plan as possible - and repurposing and keeping as many original fixtures as possible. I believe that if the original owner and architect were to walk through - they would be pleased. The vanities in the master bathroom were custom made in walnut with bookmarked veneer door fronts. Most people think it is original. The last bathroom is targeted for a major spruce up next year. It has the original sitz tub and a 7 1/2' Roman tub - all in fantastic working condition. We saved marble from the original master bath and will replace damaged panels and floor with that. My garage is our new "history of plumbing museum"! We have a huge gas fired boiler (Miss Bertha) and for me - moving the thermostat away from a radiator helped. I heat 10,000 sq.ft including a ballroom on the 3rd floor!! We "winterize" a bit at a time and interior storm windows are my favorite! I was thankful for the mild winter - my highest gas bill was $579 and I've just shut it down for the season. Early!!!! Living here is a labor of love...we are simply stewards! I enjoy your blog!!!

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  6. Can you please film your J.L. Mott Inodoro high tank toilet flushing? Then send the video to I really love your J.L. Mott Inodoro toilet. Thanks.