Would you like to know something insane? OK I’LL TELL YOU. Last Friday was the anniversary of the closing on my house. 3 whole years!!!!
Just kidding, it’s 4 years.
Actually wait, 5 years.
Fuck. It’s 6 years. I have some feelings about it, as you might expect.
The very first time I came to Kingston, it was for a weekend with friends. We stayed in an Airbnb only a few blocks from the house I’d later go on to buy. Some sleuthing revealed that the owners (now friends of mine—something that tends to happen when you move to a place like this!) were a couple of young guys who had bought the house less than a year prior to our stay. The house was very nice, and every part of it had seemingly received some level of attention to prepare it for comfortable occupancy. Walls had been skimmed and painted, furniture and window treatments installed, and the oak floors refinished to a pleasant shade of medium brown.
So it’s with some cringing embarrassment that I’ll now admit to feeling like the renovation was nice enough, but…could have been better. Freshly painted acoustic tiles still covered some original plaster ceilings, new electrical work had been run in exposed plastic channels rather than behind walls and ceilings, and inexpensive floating laminate flooring hid what was likely layers of old flooring in the kitchen. The bathrooms had been updated with a sheet of linoleum flooring, that unconvincing variety meant to look like natural stone, and the chipped and broken 1930s wall tiles had been painted a deep navy—including the mastic that was revealed when some of them had fully detached—rather than restored or replaced. All of this struck me as kind of a bummer. It was all fine but also not what I would have done. I held this belief with all the authority of somebody whose restoration experience started and ended with spending two years fixing up a 600 square foot Brooklyn apartment. If I’d only had a house, I could show these people how it was really done. Thoroughly. Lovingly. Do it right or don’t do it at all.
Sitting here today, I wish I could go back and slap that judge-y expression right off my dumb fucking face. What these owners had done was not only practical but smart: in most cases they’d done just enough to make the house cozy and clean, which in turn allowed them to begin renting it, which in turn augmented their income, which in turn allowed them to save for the renovations they’d complete down the line. I just hadn’t given them the benefit of the doubt that they had further plans beyond what I could see. Eventually they put in a very nice brand new kitchen. They renovated the bathrooms in a classic and elegant style befitting of a Victorian home. Having a “good enough” kind of solution in the interim took the pressure off to do it all at once, and allowed them to do something within mere months that I have not been able to comfortably do for six years: to stop apologizing. To host overnight guests and dinner parties. To have the flexibility to put the renovation on hold because everything is already fine.
To be fair: comparing your renovation to your perception of someone else’s is generally unhelpful. All houses are different. While their bathroom tiles on the first floor had been damaged from 80 years of use, mine had been ripped from the wall because they were spattered with human remains. While their exterior work mostly entailed repainting and gardening, mine has involved tearing down multiple additions and reimagining entire elevations. It’s been difficult—to say the least—to prioritize all the many moving parts of renovating this house, and I’m positive I’ve erred from time to time in that agenda-setting. I’m sure I will continue to, because it’s hard. Like everyone else, I’m at the mercy of time and money and weather and a million other challenges big and small with a project of this scope.
And yet: SIX. YEARS. And it’s hard to imagine there aren’t at least another six ahead of me, and probably six more after that. It’s a slog. A satisfying, gratifying, at times exciting, sometimes fun, difficult-to-explain, always educational, and frequently humbling slog. Nothing in my house brings this into sharper relief than my bathroom.
Yes, I have a bathroom. I showed it to you once, almost 6 years ago, when it looked like this. In preparation to sell, obviously someone had done some rushed repair work on the walls and put in a new drywall ceiling, which was slowly being ruined by the still-leaking roof above. Given that the downstairs bathroom was basically a crime scene, this one didn’t seem so bad. As is my habit, I was blinded by a few things.
FOR EXAMPLE, THIS SINK. I mean. There were so many parts of this house that I loved at first sight, but this sink was high on that list. The idea that someone else might buy the house and rip it out made me even more determined to make sure it was mine. Sometimes when people are over I like to joke that I hope the dump will accept it when I get around to replacing it, just to watch the reaction. It’s endlessly fun to me and only me.
Above the sink is this sweet little glass shelf and this beautiful mirror. Of course I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that the sink/shelf/mirror combo hasn’t changed since the bathroom was first installed around 1890.
Where did the 1890 date come from? This hurts, you guys. This bathroom had its original toilet when I bought the house. Most toilet tank lids have a manufacturing date stamped on the underside, and I’m pretty sure this one said 1890. The plumbing wasn’t turned on until a few hours before we had to start living here, so we didn’t realize that none of it really worked—the waste line running from this bathroom to the basement had an impressive crack all the way down it, both toilets in the house leaked…I don’t know, it was a bad scene that we needed to deal with ASAP. At the time, I was precious about plenty of things (see: sink) but not an old toilet—old toilets are finicky and inefficient and a little gross, right?!
DAMNIT, DANIEL. Let’s pretend that the base and the tank were irreparably cracked or something, which might actually be true. But what I absolutely know is true is that I went out and bought a new toilet—a totally basic and inexpensive Kohler—and oversaw plumbers as they removed this one. Which, after lots of grunting and moaning and jostling, ended with one of the guys taking a SLEDGHAMMER to the base to get it out. It was stuck down to that little painted platform (probably installed to cover some rotted flooring—I don’t want to know) with some crazy adhesive putty stuff and they just could not get it to budge.
Hindsight, man. It hurts sometimes. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your life (lol yes I am), but if you have an original toilet…toilets haven’t changed that much since their inception, except sadly in the way they look, and can usually be retrofitted with new parts to bring them back into perfect working order. Pretty much without exception, toilets made before the 1950s are SO pretty, and I really don’t quite understand why nobody is reproducing these elegant old designs. There are decent options I’m aware of for historic renovations—as in, they might fit in more seamlessly than something decidedly modern—but they really don’t look like any actual old toilet I’ve seen. Someone ought to do something about this issue of grave social concern.
Enough about the toilet. I can’t think about it anymore. The nice old shitter with the wall-mounted tank is long gone and that’s that. Keep an eye out for very old toilets because I want to put one back someday.
Which brings us to the tub! This is very obviously not the original tub. It’s probably from the 1960s? But it is enameled cast iron and 100% decent. Never in a million years would I pick it for this bathroom, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
Except for the hot and cold valves, which both leak like crazy when they’re on. I have done exactly nothing to try to identify the source of the leak or improve the situation, in spite of the wild temperature fluctuations that occur during most showers, or the way you have to avoid standing in a certain spot lest the leak from the hot valve scald your delicate ankles.
Also, note the shower surround. That is not tile. That is certainly not a slab. That is…Formica!! In fact it’s the exact same Formica that clad the first floor kitchen’s countertops when I moved in.
I don’t think this has ever been what Formica is for, so on one hand it’s held up impressively well—by which I mean, it’s still clinging to the wall. On the other hand, it’s fucking disgusting and slathered in generous layers of caulk and a light spattering of mold and…sigh, I am a trash human.
The floor, by the way, is a vinyl tile that looks kind of like terrazzo. I am a life-long terrazzo fanatic, and there’s actually something I kind of like about the floor except that it’s in this bathroom. The colors are so aggressively unpleasant and the tiles are lifting off the plywood subfloor and a couple of them have broken. CHIC!
And so. After 6 years of living, the bathroom looks like this. It’s funny—I recently told a houseguest with absolute certainty that the walls have always been exactly as peel-y as they appear in this photo, but looking back I can see that isn’t true. Which really speaks to the extent to which I’ve truly turned a blind eye to this room, to the point that I didn’t notice that it was, evidently, actively degrading around me.
Very small efforts have been made. Very small things have happened by necessity. Note how there is some shelving crammed in there between the tub and the wall. A colorful shower curtain is trying and failing very hard to make things mildly cheerful. I hung a couple hooks for towels.
What is happening in this image? Well. There’s a crumpled fabric bin thing on top of the toilet tank to hold excess stuff because there’s not enough storage in here. That little print next to the shelf is concealing some large holes I made almost 6 years ago, when I was trying to install an outlet and decided a 1″ spade bit was a good choice for test-drilling. First I ran into the cast iron vent pipe. Then I ran into the dead gas line for the original lighting. Undeterred, I then ran into a stud. All with this massive drill bit! I have learned some things, thank god.
The larger print “covers” a hilariously awkwardly placed hole where I did successfully install the outlet, only to remove it a couple of years later when the electric to this room got eliminated in the course of other work. That’s when I ran new electric but in exposed conduit this time, since I didn’t want to take out walls or ceilings. Since there’s no active electric currently in the old upstairs kitchen—the room behind that wall—I stuck a power strip through the hilariously awkward hole in the wall to allow me to power a few tools.
It’s called elegance, look it up.
The light over the sink is a Radar Sconce from Schoolhouse Electric, bequeathed to me by my mother who ordered it for her place but then couldn’t use it. It has got to be the worst-looking installation of what’s otherwise a nice light in history. I’m sorry, Schoolhouse. You make nice things and I don’t deserve them.
The window is nice. The top sash contains the only stained glass in the house, and the bottom sash is one big piece of glass rather than divided like all my other windows. I put a piece of vinyl window frosting over it for privacy.
Note that the formica continues around this side of the room on the lower half of the walls. I got this little cabinet from IKEA, which turns out to be cute but nearly worthless when it comes to storage.
SO ANYWAY. Now you have an intimate and detailed glimpse of the space where I have cleaned my body and wiped my butt for the past 6 years. I have unburdened myself and now you get to live with this very likely unwanted information. No matter how much I clean this bathroom, it always looks and feels dirty, and I’m truly mortified whenever someone other than myself needs to use it.
“You didn’t shower, right?” This is what I asked my friend Anna, the cleanest half-Swede and best caulk artist I know, recently over coffee after an overnight stay.
“Oh no,” she replied. “I’m afraid of your shower,” seeming to imply that she would have showered, had the conditions looked less like a staph infection waiting to happen. I cherish this moment because it was so perfectly honest. A polite stranger might lie about forgetting their shampoo or liking to shower at night, but a true friend gives you the straight dope. I love you, but you’re living like a wild animal.
It’s hard to imagine that over the course of six years, never has this bathroom floated to the top of a priority list. You might be thinking why not just…and believe me, I have the same thought all the time. But if you’ll excuse some brief self-compassion, it really just hasn’t been a priority. As-is, it’s ugly as hell but it works. It successfully performs all the basic functions of a bathroom—whereas at various times the house has been without heat, hot water, a kitchen, a bedroom, various exterior walls…there’s just always been something that at least felt more pressing or essential.
At the same time, my hesitance to make any improvements to the bathroom has probably been informed by the kind of thinking I described at the beginning of this post: do it right or don’t do it at all. Whether or not the bathroom would eventually need a full renovation has never really been up for debate, so I have essentially been waiting for that full renovation and avoiding anything less. And I really do mean avoiding—I mean, LOOK at those walls. Don’t you want to just yank those peeling parts off?? Can you imagine the prolonged exercise in self-control of leaving it alone? Because I know myself well enough to know this: once I start, I will be powerless to stop. And then I have opened another can of worms when I’m already juggling the dozen cans of worms open in front of me. A small gesture like scraping the walls or re-caulking the tub will inevitably spiral, and it’s a dangerous and slippery slope into total chaos from there. And so: blinders, on.
The problem, of course, with putting this stuff off “until the big renovation” is finally, to me at least, evident: that big renovation is a long way off. Years, not months. And I just cannot anymore. The bathroom is gross and makes me feel bad, and unfortunately it will not improve on its own no matter how much I nag it. So I’m going to do…something.
I’m giving myself a week. A week to deal with the floors, the walls, the shitty plumbing, the lack of storage, the bad lighting, the formica shower surround…all of it. I am absolutely determined to keep all walls and ceilings intact—once the plaster goes, then so does the brick nogging, and then I’m dealing with potential structural issues (no evidence of this, but…ya know) and insulation and vapor barriers and cement board and then what the hell, let’s rip out the tub, and THAT IS NOT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. I’m also giving myself a thousand dollars, by which I mean my corporate overlords at Lowe’s have agreed to provide exactly this sum in materials and I will gladly take it and very likely spend it all. It sounds like a lot of money but I’m sure it’ll go fast.
Just as I haven’t expended significant effort on fixing up the bathroom, I have not allowed myself to put significant thought into what I would do with it if I could! So…I dunno. Wish me luck? Tell me what to do? My current plan is no plan, so…tell me your thoughts.
And then your secrets.