Rooms of requirement.

Here’s what we think: The original 1905 floor plan probably included a half-bath downstairs (in what is now the hall closet), a full bathroom upstairs, a pedestal sink in the master bedroom, and a toilet and sink in the basement for the servants (later — much later — converted into a darkroom).

The full bath upstairs, accessible from the landing, connects to the front-facing bedroom at the southwest corner of the house and abuts the rear-facing bedroom in the northwest corner of the house. This rear bedroom probably had a sleeping porch that was later enclosed, and part of that enclosure became another full bath. All of this is guesswork, but it’s educated guesswork, based in research beyond Pinterest boards.

The original full bath had (still has) a cast-iron pedestal sink, a wall-mounted toilet, and a bathtub that, by the time we bought the house and started renovating the kitchen below, had caused the joists to sag until they were no longer secure.

The downside of this discovery was that it turned a kitchen remodel into a full-blown, two-story demolition and reconstruction project that more than doubled the renovation budget and delayed our moving in by six months. One upside of the change was that we got to remove the hideous navy floral wallpaper in the upstairs bath (that opened to a front bedroom decorated with the same hideous fabric and wallpaper.)

We kept all of the fixtures in this one bathroom. The plumber’s only concern was that the tub would be hard to update with a hand-held or other shower attachment, if we wanted to add that back, because of the size and spacing of the faucet openings. The brass shower fixture that was in place when we bought the house was faulty, so what had been a bath/shower combo became only tub.

To our young children, this tub was better than any swimming pool. We had toys and bath crayons and Mr. Bubble everywhere. As they grew older, though, the bathtub lost its appeal. I use it now mostly for developing and washing large cyanotype prints (because I am never, not ever, going to use the darkroom that’s in the basement, ever).

When he was six my son asked if he could use the shower in what was temporarily our room (more on this, later). I showed him how the shower worked, helped him get started, and then went downstairs to start dinner.

Twenty or so minutes later, the smell of Kiehl’s grapefruit body wash wafted down to the kitchen. I went up to check on him, and he was standing under the stream of water, eyes closed, face raised, feet covered in bubbly foam. He was in heaven. He used all of the hot water and the entire bottle of body wash (a Christmas gift from a friend who knew it was a favorite indulgence). He hasn’t bathed in a tub since that day. He uses the bathroom that connects to his bedroom only as necessary for things other than showering.

Had we listened to our architect friend I wouldn’t have this fond and funny memory of my son’s first shower, but we would have had, for the last 15 years, a better functioning system of bedrooms and bathrooms.

When we the had the middle of the house (kitchen below, full bath above) down to its skeleton self so we could replace the support system between first and second floors, our friend tried, unsuccessfully, to convince us to make a change. Her suggestion was that we not replicate the original layout of this bathroom but instead make it a Jack-and-Jill connector between the bedrooms on either side. As it was, the bathroom connected only to the room in the southwest corner.

Her rationale, the architect’s, was simple: Since we planned to use these two bedrooms on the west side of the house for our children’s rooms, updating the master bedroom (on the east side) for our use, it made sense to redesign the overall upstairs floor plan. Longer term, having two bedrooms with a shared, larger bath between them made more sense functionally and structurally.

I add this story to underscore something important that we’ve come to understand only after living in this house for 15 years: A good architect thinks comprehensively, holistically about how a family system will function in a house. If we could do it all over again, this is one of only two or three decisions we would change.

Among the reasons we would do this differently, had we known then what we know now, is that keeping the existing floor plan allowed us to delay working on the master bedroom, which stayed untouched for more than 10 years and remains unfinished.

When Mr. and Mrs. Jones renovated the house in the 1920s, they added a sunroom to the north end of the living room, a library in between the floor at the stair landing, and a toilet in the master bedroom.

I call this last addition “the shitter.” My more elegant architect friend calls it “the toilet temple.” In either case, it’s clearly an appendage stuck on to the main part of the house in a way that makes no real sense. Functional? Yes. But also unattractive. The shower, built into what was surely once a closet, was probably added in the 1980s. The pedestal sink between the closets is likely original.

When we walked into this room for the first time, we were overwhelmed with the possibilities. It was one big rectangle, with a toilet tacked on and a shower and sink right there, just out there in the room.

“You’d have to be a pretty comfortable couple to live in this room,” a friend remarked.

There was so much possibility that we couldn’t make a decision, beyond a simple one to build a wall between what was the sleeping portion of the room and the bathroom components. So we built the partition, installed half of the hardwood floor (in the sleeping portion), and closed the door.

For the first year or two, we’d wander in the master bedroom every now and again, talking about (disagreeing over) possible configurations for the master bath.

We were using the back bedroom as ours, and it was a comfortable arrangement. Our son had the room adjacent to the hallway bath, and our daughter, still sleeping in a crib at the time, had the small bedroom in between her brother’s room and the master.

We settled into this functional work-around thinking it temporary.

Then we spent more than a decade ignoring the house, particularly the master bedroom. Until last summer.

“I need a bigger room, so friends can sleep over, and I need a bathroom that I don’t have to share with my smelly brother,” my daughter said. Did she *need* this or just want it, I asked. We had more than enough room, a ridiculous amount of room, actually.

“Mom,” she said, “we have a room that’s supposed to be your room, and you won’t deal with it because you and Dad are too stubborn to make any decisions.”

“It’ll take $100,000 to finish that master bath!” Bernard responded, “That’s just not in the budget right now.”

“It all works, correct?” I asked. “The toilet, the shower, the sink, they all work?” (“Yes.”) “OK, then we’re going to move in. We’re going to put the floor down as a floating floor, clean out all the crap, repair the plaster, and move in. We are doing this. Our daughter is right.”

And she was. So we cleaned up and moved into a mostly unfinished master bedroom suite.

Not long after we moved bedrooms, our architect came over to visit. “I think we’ve figured it out,” I told her. “We’ve come up with a plan for the bathroom that we both like, we just had to live in that space to see it.”

I sketched the idea and sent it to her. She tidied it up, created a couple of variations, and sent it back.

Looking for something else, I rifled through all of the old plans and papers from when we were first getting started, back in 2004.

The plan we sketched out a few months ago, on a piece of scrap paper, was almost identical to the concept she’d tried to persuade us to accept 15 years earlier.


This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

  1. We renovated our 1892 Colonia Revival 20 years ago, and these photos look awfully familiar!!!! Lots of detective work needed like here. Our bathrooms and the kitchen were the worst tasks too. In one room, a cast-iron tub was positioned over a floor joist that had been sawed down to about two inches to make way for plumbing! Such a project, but in the end, well worth it!

    Liked by 1 person

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