Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Big Old Houses – Room with a Bath

Big Old Houses – Room with a Bath
by John Foreman

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 switches 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. But ... it 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. But ... it'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.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
Click here for NYSD Contents