Renovation Begins: The 20-Year Plan.
In the fall and winter of 1999, having spent over a year living with the most hideously ugly bathroom, I had had enough of the grey and avocado shabby chic décor (and I use the term chic loosely). That's what I said, grey and avocado. My theory was that the house's owner—the guy who owned the house before our friend Joe—had renovated the bathroom and used avocado green fixtures, as the times apparently demanded of every good citizen. When Joe's wife got hold of the house she set about pinkifying it, and part of that process was introducing pink to the bathroom via the new grey and pink wallpaper (because who would think grey and avocado green go together, right?). My theory was predicated upon evidence: I found a shade of intestinal-pink paint under the most recent layer of white in the dining room, a color choice that told me that someone once had dire need of the HGTV color specialists . . . and perhaps some meds. I cannot, however, explain away the grey cabinetry. Did they paint that to match the new wallpaper? Thinking about it hurt my brain.
Luckily, Mrs. Joe was back in Brooklyn, having suffered some sort of mental breakdown—or so the neighbors told me—from living in Putnam County, and that I can certainly relate to. I heard this gossip about her from a friend of a friend I met shortly after we arrived. Her friend told her the woman who lived in the neon yellow house was a nut and my friend explained that I just moved in recently. Yeah, really, let me earn my own crazy cred, people. Just give me some time here in the suburban wasteland and I'll get there. Anyway, the offending bathroom and all its accoutrements had to be done away with, so a few days before Christmas and imminent holiday guests, I decided the time was right to begin renovation, starting with the odious task of removing grey and pink floral wallpaper.
As anyone who has removed wallpaper can attest, it is a sucky job. First off, if you’re lucky to get the paper off, you are still left with an icky, sticky and most unattractive glue residue. Unless you’re like my father-in-law, who can rework crap like that with a paintbrush, and make it look like a custom wall finish, well then you just have to wet, scrape, wet, scrape, drench, scrape, and so on. Eventually it will all come off, if you have obstinate determination and don’t value your fingernails. Hence my paper ultimately did come off in entirety about two or three months later.
Dean then set about doing the demolition work. The bathroom, though a 70s horror, was built well and expensively. Consequently, we attempted to spare the double vanity, well made with quality wood and hardware, but after storing it in the garage for the better part of two years, it ultimately went into the Dumpster. Afterward, I realized I should have donated it to Habitat for Humanity—live and learn.
It was satisfying to wreck the built-in linen closet, the avocado tiled “bath cave” and the dark wood spindles that finished the look. I ripped up the linoleum once Dean's demo was done, and eventually we had a gutted bathroom. There was one small problem: our house had only one bathroom. We had to replace the old with the new, like, right away. All the new bathroom stuff was piled in the small upstairs hall, waiting to be installed, including the tub.
We had ordered a refinished antique tub from a small company in Pennsylvania. When the married couple that owned the company delivered it, we had a nice chat. During this nice chat I happened to notice that my one-year-old looked oddly luminescent. He appeared to be glowing. “Damn, I make fine babies,” I thought . . . but wait . . . his skin was somehow reflecting light! Curiosity overcoming good manners, I excused myself and went over and grabbed him—and he nearly slipped right out of my hands. Turned out he had smeared an entire jar—large, as luck would have it—of recently purchased petroleum jelly all over his face and head. It was everywhere—in his hair, eyelashes, brows, ears and nostrils.
Grabbing a wet rag isn’t easy without a working bathroom, so I had to run downstairs to get one from the kitchen. I gave him a quick and sloppy clean-up and then walked the tub couple to the living room to see them out. Near the door we resumed our conversation until I heard Jackson yell down that Luca was sprinkling “some white powder” all over the place. I hurriedly said goodbye and raced upstairs to find Ajax scouring powder all over the newly purchased area rug and an ear-to-ear grin on Luca’s face.
Did you know that Ajax bleaches everything it touches? I began calling these the Luca facts: things I've learned from living with him. (I’ve also learned that coins in the cassette player foul up the workings, food in the VCR disrupts one’s viewing pleasure, and kittens in the refrigerator are unhappy, even if left for a mere few moments. It's interesting to acquire the knowledge that a two-year-old toddler can figure out how to stack the chairs to make it up to the box of donuts on top of the refrigerator and can also figure out how to open a childproof bottle of cold medicine that I had trouble with. He might also mistake a Kindergartener’s glue stick for Chapstick and smear it all over his lips.)
Back to the bathroom. We wanted what was then called a skirted tub. These days it’s more commonly referred to as a pedestal tub. At that time the only one available was a beautiful Kohler soaking tub but it was too wide for our room. Since we really had our hearts set on this type of tub we opted for the antique one, which was reglazed. Reglazing sounds so permanent, doesn’t it? But, in actuality, all it means is that the tub has been painted with automobile-grade paint.
As good a reglazing job as the guy did on our tub, it could not withstand the constant use it encountered in our home—despite fanatically meticulous care on my part. Ultimately we had to exchange it for a new tub but by that time we were able to buy the skirted tub new, in a smaller size. We thought a new tub would fare better than a reglazed one. It did not. Our hard water ruined the finish in just four months.
Hard is an interesting word to describe water laden with minerals. Perhaps because it's so very hard to live with? Since our home was sited nearly atop of what used to be a very profitable iron ore mine, you can imagine the mineral content of our water. It did not bode well for anything it might flow through or come in contact with, such as furnaces, washing machines, dishwashers—you know, things that cost a lot of money and that you need in a house. What I was interested in knowing is how those corrosive qualities affected the human body. I think if a substance destroys major appliances, it must have an adverse impact on say, a stomach? Time will tell, I suppose. At that time we spent five thousand dollars to install a water filtration system but the porcelain finish was already irrevocably damaged. Caveat emptor, apparently, because no one at the tub company told me about hard water ruining porcelain despite my calling them half a dozen times with questions about hard water stains and porcelain finishes. I guess I was just supposed to intuitively know this type of tub care minutiae—if you're buying a tub you better be damn sure you know all of the tub facts, lady! And I guess I was also supposed to know that water treatment companies rip off stupid people from the city who have never had to deal with bullshit like wells and water softening before (they just turned on the tap and lovely soft water sprang forth).
The overall look of the bathroom was finalized in our collective mind’s eye. We selected a pedestal sink and matching toilet from Kohler that looked as if they were made in the 20s, and we added beadboard halfway up the walls that we painted a creamy white. The upper walls were painted a cafe au lait and all the fixtures (save the shiny chrome antique-replica ones in the tub) were in satin nickel. Old-fashioned inspired sconces were mounted on either side of the distressed white-framed mirror, and glass shelves were used to hold toiletries. A small crystal lamp provided mood lighting and two shower lights brightened the bathing area. Where once there was a low ceiling above the tub, we now added three feet in height and installed a small skylight on one side of it, painting the ceiling a bright white. I refurbished some old shutters I found in a closet that fit the bathroom window, painting them the same shade of creamy white as the wainscoting and having ribbed glass inserted into the fabric panel part.
All in all, we thought we did a grand job of transforming the room, and we did. Only problem was the room looked like a page ripped from the Pottery Barn catalog and it looked like everyone else’s new bathroom, too. Surfing a local real estate Web site showed me many a home boasting the same bathroom as mine, right down to the Kohler sink and toilet. Sigh. Were we trendsetters or sheep? I just didn't quite know.