After a couple months of stalking the listing online, the price on our house finally dropped and a few days later I worked up the nerve to call the listing agent to inquire about it. “It’s a great house,” she told me, “it needs some work, and the one big thing is that it does need a new furnace, but otherwise it’s a great, solid old house!” It was a nice chat. I set up an appointment to view it a few days later, and we were about to hang up when I asked. There isn’t really a delicate way to initiate these kinds of conversations, but I had a hunch that had been building for a while. “So,” I said, “did somebody die there or something?”
She paused, and then sighed. “Well, yes, the previous owner did die in the house, but it was of natural causes. He was old—it wasn’t anything violent or anything like that, I can assure you. It’s a really great house—I think you’ll like it.”
I suppose it’s possible that the death might have scared off a particularly superstitious potential buyer or two, but it seems rather unlikely. By today’s standards it might be a little alarming, but before the 1950s or so it was very common for people to both start and end their lives in their own homes. More than likely, he wasn’t the first person to die here—just the most recent. Sad? Sure. A little eery? I guess. But hardly cause for alarm. It was one of those details that stayed in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really fixate on it.
It was clear from our first walk-through that the house needed just a tad more work than the listing agent had let on during that first conversation. Little things like the roof and the unusable kitchen had apparently not been worth mentioning, not to mention the downstairs bathroom, which appeared to have had some kind of plumbing issue that left it literally crumbling, the tiles shedding from the walls like concrete from the Tappan Zee Bridge. For some reason it looked like the door, which was lying its side in the living room, had been ripped from the frame and forcibly removed.
“You’d want to redo this bathroom anyway,” she told us. “That back wall is shared with the laundry room, so you could knock it out and double the size. You’d have room for a walk-in shower or whatever you wanted!”
Obvious plumbing issues and cosmetic details notwithstanding, I loved this bathroom just as it was. It’s teeny-tiny—which I think is perfect especially for a downstairs bathroom—and the 1930s tub, sink, and toilet were all in relatively good shape, especially given their age and the condition of the rest of the room. It’s one of the spaces that I couldn’t wait to renovate and make usable again. It’s going to be so beautiful someday. Really. I promise.
One day the real estate agent called me with some good news. “I found out that the plumbing in that downstairs bathroom is fine, as far as we know. I spoke to someone from the clean-up crew and it turns out that the missing tiles were removed by them because they were unsightly.” Unsightly. I’ll never forget that choice of words.
“Is unsightly a euphemism for, like, covered in blood and human remains?”
She only laughed.
“OK, that bathtub has got to go,” Max announced when I told him about the conversation.
“Well, we don’t know that he died in the tub,” I explained. “He could have just, I don’t know, fallen in the tub, but managed to make his way back out again, or, well…we weren’t there. Anything could have happened. It’s a nice tub. I like that tub. They don’t make tubs like that anymore.”
“Yeah, but he probably died in the tub. We can buy a different old tub that someone didn’t die in.”
“But you’d never really know that nobody died in that tub, either. Somebody could have died in pretty much any used tub. How about we get it re-glazed and call it a day? It’s really the perfect size for that bathroom. We can’t just stick any tub in there.”
“I swear, I will never use that bathroom.”
“Fine. It’ll be my bathroom.”
“We’re not keeping that tub in the house.”
This, by the way, is a fight that we haven’t stopped having for a year.
Knowing about the tub bothered me only slightly more than knowing about the death in the first place—which is to say, not very much. As far as causes of death go, dying in a bathtub is relatively unremarkable. The bathtub came up again once or twice more with our plumber during inspections, but otherwise nobody really mentioned it again until after we’d bought and moved into the house.
That’s when our neighbors began to introduce themselves. Apparently lots of people knew about the bathtub, or at least about the death, and Max was quick to forge fast alliances with whomever would listen about my plans to keep the tub. With the exception of maybe 2 people that I can think of, this news has been met unanimously with shock and disgust. “Well, it’s too small to really take a nice bath in, so it’ll really just be for showers,” is my general refrain. Historically, this has helped a total of nobody feel more comfortable with the idea.
“I’ve been an EMT for coming on thirty years, and I’ll tell you—when they opened up all the windows to your house, well, I’ve never smelled anything like that in my life. I’ll never forget it.” This was our neighbor Karen, who came by shortly after we moved in. According to her, the body had been there for a while. Maybe a month, by her professional estimation.
Once, as a teenager, at the height of the popularity of the CSI franchise, my twin sister and I attended a two-week summer class on forensic science. It was there that we learned about the Body Farm, a 2.5 acre plot of land in Tennessee dedicated to the study of the decomposition of human remains. Depending on the conditions and circumstances, lots of different things can happen to corpses over time: in hot and arid climates, for instance, a body left outside will essentially dry up and mummify, but in general they tend to decompose pretty much the same way. In essence, they liquify. In the case of our particular corpse, some percentage probably evacuated itself through the plumbing while the rest stuck around and marinated, waiting to be discovered—by who, we still don’t know.
When we first got to the house, my idea of a significant and readily available improvement to the downstairs bathroom was re-hanging the door, so that we could more effectively ignore it over the ensuing months and possibly years. We have a functioning bathroom upstairs, so there wasn’t any major rush to get it up and running.
Remember what I said about this bathroom sharing a wall with the laundry room, though? Well, that’s thrown kind of a kink in the plans. While we don’t particularly need a second bathroom, we really want a laundry room. The extent of our renovations elsewhere means a whole lot of dust and debris and general filth, and not being able to do laundry in our own house has quickly become incredibly annoying. We generally show up to the laundromat once every couple of weeks with four IKEA bags stuffed to the gills with dirty laundry, and the whole affair is just a big, moderately expensive hassle (those machines aren’t cheap!). The house came with a busted-up washing machine attached to some leaky exposed copper supply lines, but it wasn’t terribly useful since we didn’t have a hot water supply on the main floor until the installation of our boiler in November. Then, of course, the machine promptly died. There was never a dryer, and lacking the necessary electrical circuit and receptacle to install one (not to mention a dryer vent), we’re pretty much starting from scratch. Including having to run new electrical and plumbing through this bathroom wall. “Easy,” I told the plumbers. “I’ll just demo out this bathroom wall and we can get on with things.”
This got me more excited about renovating the bathroom someday, because there’s already so much great stuff in it! Check out that hook! Check out that toilet paper dispenser! The sink is also really cute (it’s a little rusty in spots, so we’ll probably have it re-glazed). Normally I wouldn’t really think twice about replacing an old toilet with a new, modern, efficient one, but this one is so pretty that I even want to clean it up and keep it. There’s a painted-over transom window over the door, which I can’t wait to strip. I even love the medicine cabinet! I don’t know if I’ll keep it as a whole cabinet or just harvest the mirror, but I do quite like it. I think the radiator will probably go just because the room is so extremely small and I’d rather do something wall-mounted that could double as a towel warmer and free up the floor space just a little. The window is small but works in the room and has really beautiful textured glass that I didn’t take a picture of. And, of course, the corpse tub. Having all of this beautiful old stuff already here, combined with the tiny size (small room = fewer materials!), makes me feel like we could probably renovate this room fairly inexpensively, even with new plumbing and electric.
Picking up where the Crime and Trauma Scene Contamination crew left off, I donned some work gloves and a respirator and started to peel back and dispose of the old tiles surrounding the bathtub and the drywall underneath.
Whats that now? Clapboard? Peekaboo!
So, apparently this used to be an exterior wall. Which made very little sense to me, considering where this room is located. Here I will refer to my floor plan:
The bathroom to which I am referring is #10 and highlighted in pink for ease of identification. The laundry room is #9. The wall I am talking about is what divides the two.
At first I thought the laundry room was just a later addition, but then I realized that didn’t make any sense because the clapboard I was uncovering was the exterior, not the interior. Huh.
Further excavation revealed that the wall was definitely clapboard. The walls—which were partially drywall but mostly the same lightweight “beaverboard” used elsewhere in the 20th century “improvements”—were hanging on old 1×2 furring strips which were nailed to the clapboard. Well. Isn’t that special.
Something tells me that this will not be a great strategy when we renovate this bathroom for real. Old furring strips nailed to really old clapboard is probably not going to be so great or so safe for holding up hundreds of pounds of cement backerboard and tile. I kept moving…
Turns out, the whole room is clapboard, except for the actual exterior wall that the window and sink are on. Underneath the beaverboard ceiling is a tongue-and-groove beadboard ceiling!
I have deduced, therefore, that this bathroom used to be a small porch. Nifty! It occurs to me that this is probably why the upstairs bathroom actually has older fixtures (like that amazing sink, and the toilet that we unfortunately had to tear out on our 3rd day in the house) than the downstairs one—because it’s older! The top of the toilet tank has a date stamp from 1935, which makes a lot of sense. We know that the house was originally split up into two units in the mid-30s (the Great Depression did that to a lot of houses, and we’ve found newspaper listings for the second floor apartment from 1938), so it was then that they enclosed the porch, then basically built a whole room inside the porch, and BOOM—bathroom.
You can’t really tell from these pictures, but all of this was also covering up an old doorway opening from the kitchen onto the porch. Crazy! Obviously, I think all of this is super cool. Like uncovering a time capsule.
Unfortunately, because these are originally exterior walls and this is my house, it also means that underneath the clapboard, the walls are stuffed full of bricks and mortar. Yep. This is called “nogging” and is how our whole house is “insulated”—I put it in quotations because it has an R-value of less than 1. It was done in a lot of houses especially in the northeast in the 19th century, both as a primitive form of insulation and as a way to keep mice and rats from getting into houses. Normally nogging is composed of “garbage bricks”—like ones that were broken or misshapen or not fired at the correct temperatures. It fell out of practice toward the end of the 19th century. It’s not structural, so it can be removed, but obviously access is pretty much impossible without ripping down all the plaster on interior walls or all of the clapboard off the exterior walls. This is why I just laugh when people try to talk to me about doing blown-in insulation, like I’ve never heard of the concept. I KNOW IT’S A THING. IT IS NOT A THING FOR US.
Obviously, this also makes it impossible to run new electrical or plumbing through the walls, which is sort of important in modern bathrooms. So basically this means that all of the stuff nailed to the clapboard has to come out, then the clapboard has to come down, and then the wall cavities have to be emptied out. Yikes! I’m not sure I can totally wrap my mind around carrying and transporting this literal ton of bricks, but at least I am young and strapping and willing to pretend that my home renovation doubles as an acceptable exercise routine, since I can’t seem to make it to the gym.
Before anyone tries to get in my face about preserving the clapboard, ask yourself this: do you want a clapboard-covered bathroom? Like, really, in real life? No you do not. We will, however, save the salvageable clapboard, which may come in handy when we get to work on the exterior and rip off the vinyl siding. We’ll also save salvageable bricks, which I have lofty ideas about repurposing when we get to work on landscaping. It’ll be great.
Oh! And I pulled up the hideous faux-terrazo linoleum and the plywood underneath it, and look! The same hardwood flooring (which we think is fir! not oak, as I had originally thought…) runs into the bathroom, too! I wasn’t really expecting that, but it’s kind of cool. I have no idea if this floor will end up being worth salvaging (there are some areas of rot and holes from old plumbing and a million nail holes from the plywood, and the total floor area is super small anyway…), but it does make me think about putting a wood floor in the bathroom instead of tile when we eventually renovate. Stained black? I like the idea of that. It feels a little less sterile than tile, which I think is nice for the main floor.
This has to be the most grueling bathroom demo in the history of mankind. It’s gutted, and now it essentially has to be gutted AGAIN. And then the BRICKS. MADNESS.
It’ll be worth it if we get laundry, though. Eyes on the prize.