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December 2, 2009 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Retro Renovation celebrates an era of post-war American housing that's being slowly eroded by the likes of HGTV.

The decor of the 1940s, 1950s, and the 1960s might be an acquired taste, but for those purchasing neglected homes in the current economic climate where an interest in thrift and vintage is gripping the youth of today, an original pink bathroom from the 1950s could be a dream come true.

Just rememember colour is the key.
posted by saturnine (49 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Aaand, I hit post instead of preview. That first line is supposed to read "an era of post-war American housing that's being slowly eroded..."

A disclaimer: my husband and I recently purchased a 1950s home, complete with a lot of original features, which led to the discovery of the first website linked. I've spent the last couple of hours obsessively trawling the website, reading up on all the minutiae.
posted by saturnine at 1:03 PM on December 2, 2009


Well I'm no huge fan of pink bathrooms but I agree that most modern renos are completely and utterly bland. They're the nutriloaf of interior decorating - so bland as to be actually offensive in their blandness.

Unfortunately the often unspoken truth is that it's really, really expensive to decorate even with relatively recent styles which is why these many-shades-of-coffee renos often win out.

Personally, when we re-did the bathroom in out 1890's bay-and-gable we went for somewhat authentic and got a real clawfoot cast-iron bathtub. $1000 seems like a stupid amount of money for a bathtub but man, what a great tub.
posted by GuyZero at 1:15 PM on December 2, 2009


I think I just found my new favourite blog. I own a 1950-vintage bungalow and have been perplexed about how to live in the kitchen (and expanding it would be expensive a number of mechanical and structural reasons). There still isn't a lot of storage but I finally decided that I would just go with the vintage theme of the design. Enter a Kit Kat Klock, and kitschy cow kettle and (shortly) a vintage-looking, but modernly efficient fridge and it seems right.
posted by Kurichina at 1:30 PM on December 2, 2009


A few years ago an apartment building was being demolished near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge south of DC, and an exterior wall was opened up to reveal floor after floor of beautiful pastel colored bathrooms, with colors that alternated in each floor. Unforunately I never got a picture of this.
posted by exogenous at 1:31 PM on December 2, 2009


Wow that post-war american housing link is sporting some retro web design ala 1995.

My parent's baby boom colonial style house had 2 full and 2 half baths: pink, green, greyish blue, and brown. Only the grey and brown survive today. They were tiny, cold and slightly maddening to be in. I've watched a few HGTV shows where they take a house with lots of character and personal touches, and turn it into something beige and Ikea. But those bathrooms... no remorse from me.

I'm not sure what a livejournal community about pin-up girl make up has to do with anything, other than make this post about more than one blog. I would have liked to see more about pink bathrooms as a phenomenon.
posted by fontophilic at 1:44 PM on December 2, 2009


Cherish those parts of your house that let you touch the past, enjoy its colors, and inhale its scents. Time is a juggernaut. The pleasure of these things isn't that they're old fashioned and kookie. It's that one summer morning in 2010, you'll step bleary-eyed into your bathroom, and catch your breath at the sight of sunlight falling across some old tiles and a ceramic towel rack, and know that this is exactly what the first owner of your house saw in 1949, or 1929, and a shadow of leaves will move slightly in the corner, and you'll experience in your heart how time is just a succession of eternal "nows" passing from one generation to the next.
posted by Faze at 1:50 PM on December 2, 2009 [15 favorites]


Man, I've always hated most of those house styles in the "post-war american housing" link. I guess #5 is kind of cool. American Craftsman all the way.
posted by ghharr at 1:52 PM on December 2, 2009


The Shelburne [VT] Museum has a '50s house as a permanent exhibit. The bathroom there was striking. It was a lot like the bathroom I grew up with, but is very different from a bathroom of today. I kind of loved it and kind of hated it.
The size of all the rooms is way larger nowadays. A single-occupancy bedroom today is about twice the size of a room that might have slept 3 kids in the '50s.
posted by MtDewd at 1:53 PM on December 2, 2009


"I would have liked to see more about pink bathrooms as a phenomenon."

In terms of the 1950s bathroom, which is what I was particularly interested in and what led me to making this post, it's a very very small niche that I wouldn't have uncovered if I hadn't taken photographs of the one we have and uploaded them to Flickr. Save the Pink Bathrooms! is the main site by the woman behind Retro Renovations. The pink was inspired by Mamie Eisenhower, and you'll find mostly Crane and Delta hardware in them (at least in mine). I mean, there were millions of these made, but they were all made the same. There's less of a phenomenon about them in particular, it's more that they were a small part of one giant cultural shift that's now being revived and celebrated in the 21st century.
posted by saturnine at 2:01 PM on December 2, 2009


The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a good website with resources for those who own mid-century homes and buildings. Time flies and the best of modern architecture and design is worthy of preservation as it too will be historic before long. I live in a 1916 bungalow that we restored and only wish that those who lived in it for the first 90 years were more kind and had kept more of the original features intact. Also love some of the stuff at Mid-Century Modernist and the Triangle Modernist Houses sites.
posted by pappy at 2:04 PM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


50 to 60 years seems to be the most dangerous time for historical preservation. They're just not quite old enough to seem worth preserving to most people but they're run down enough that they need a lot of renovation. When these mid-century houses were new, cities were busy bulldozing entire neighborhoods of great late 19th century Victorian houses and stores. It wasn't until the 1960s when Victorian architectural preservation really started getting traction.

There's always a big generational gap too. I'm in my forties and see the mid-century stuff as cool and space-age but I'm sure that my mom, who was a young adult in the fifties, sees it all as crappy and tacky.
posted by octothorpe at 2:14 PM on December 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


You know, I think there's something to be said for mid-century modern interior design, but the exteriors you could just forget about. I mean, I know we all want to be hip and retro and Mad Men and what-have-you, but can you seriously, with a straight face tell me that these houses look even remotely interesting or attractive? The whole purpose of suburban architecture is to put up something so bland and inoffensive that it will retain its market value no matter how much fashions and sensibilities change. I mean, maybe when FLW was first designing his ranch houses they were unique and interesting, but I can find absolutely nothing positive to say about the exterior styling of the average American suburban dwelling.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:26 PM on December 2, 2009


I agree, there's no pining for 50's bathrooms and kitchens. But a properly equipped 50's basement can be a joyful thing. Especially if it has an inset tiled bar.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 2:29 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pink bathrooms are really flattering and make you look completely hot when you look in the mirror. A pink bathroom with plenty of direct lighting right around the mirror will enhance your self-esteem immeasurably. Not a stupid magnifying mirror, either.
posted by kathrineg at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think the biggest problem with post war housing is that it was designed to be as cheap as possible, with as much pre-fab materials as they could get away with. So they are generally smallish and plain with little or no sense of spatial design. It's hard to take that as a starting point and get something interesting. Most victorians are, by todays standards, custom built homes with a huge amount of craftsmanship and skilled manual labor involved building each one, so they have an appeal beyond nostalgia. I think the 50s/60s housing will end up being viewed like 70s/80s cars. A product of their time, but not something you really want to preserve.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:50 PM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


The thing that turns me off to most of the 1950's homes is the low quality of the construction. It seems to me that most of the houses were put up as quickly as possible for the least amount of money. The craftsmanship just isn't there. That's why the beautiful Victorian or Arts & Crafts houses are still amazing and the mid-century houses are not. There are exceptions of course, my house was built in 1959 and was clearly some one's pride. The additions done in the 70's leave a lot to be desired, but the basic house is solid. The cookie cutter houses down the street, even though they were built right around the same time, are mostly ready to fall apart.

In 50 years, I think people will be saying the same things about all of our McMansions.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:03 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


The last house I lived in had a pink-tiled bathroom with blonde cabinetry. The walls had long since been painted white, and the pink looked ludicrous, completely out of place. We couldn't imagine why anyone would have decorated a room in such a ridiculous way on purpose. It was a depressing little room, tacky and bleak.

Being renters, we didn't want to spend thousands of dollars on a complete renovation, so we tore out the rusty, broken wall heater, patched up the wall, replaced the rusty, broken vanity lamp, ripped off some crappy late-70's crown molding, and then repainted walls and ceiling.

You know what? With nice creamy yellow walls, a semi-glossy silver ceiling, and fixtures that didn't look like they would give you tetanus, the pink tiles actually looked pretty good. It was still funky but it all hung together. You just have to forget all your cool modern sophistication and go for straight-up happiness. Bright uncomplicated warmth is what the pink bathroom is all about.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:07 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


We bought a late 40s ranch house. When we peeled back the wallpaper, we found some really cool wallpaper (some of which I put on the side for crafts). The woodwork in the house is really nice too, but I'm not sure it's original.
posted by drezdn at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2009


In 50 years, I think people will be saying the same things about all of our McMansions.

I think this is a pretty good judgment. I see a lot of "big" houses that are bland and unimaginative in design. Even worse, are the quick neighborhoods thrown up during the house building boom that continue this on a smaller scale with the largest architectural feature being the ugly garage that dominates the street view.

In the refurnished 1950's or 1960's homes I've seen on tv, I always feel like Cary Grant should be walking into the room and the colors should quickly revert to more pastel shades. I find them interesting in a "Wow, it looks just like it does in the movies!" sort of thing, but I wouldn't want to live in one. While I don't begrudge those who do, I really don't understand the passion they seem to have. It seems from what I've seen on tv (no science here folks!) that they want to totally go back in time, even with regard to dress. Generally, you don't see folks who love Victorians wanting to dress for that era or those who own Arts and Crafts doing the same either.
posted by Atreides at 3:12 PM on December 2, 2009


Most victorians are, by todays standards, custom built homes with a huge amount of craftsmanship and skilled manual labor involved building each one, so they have an appeal beyond nostalgia.

heh. Ever house-hunt in Toronto? Many Victorians were built by unskilled people for poor people, or at least middle-class people. There are lots of crappy Victorians out there which are only still standing by virtue of being completely overbuilt as were most buildings of the day. Load-bearing brick and virgin 4x10 and 2x12 solid beams make up for a world of cheap plaster and crappy window casings.

I think the issue is that 50 years is about when a house starts to really look like shit without someone putting work into it. As a Toronto neighbour once said, "the last generation fought in Europe. Our generation's calling is to fix up all these old houses."

Pink bathrooms are a bit like the tenets of National Socialism. Dude, at least it's an ethos... which is more than I can say about my current 1964 tract house which was designed by a very boring man who definitely owned a ruler, a right-angle and a drafting table and not much else.
posted by GuyZero at 3:15 PM on December 2, 2009 [7 favorites]


I absolutely love many elements of 50s and 60s design, but I hate pastel bathrooms with every fiber of my being. I grew up in a house with a two-tone baby blue bath that my mother tried to make work with peach paint with blue sponging on top. It was every bit as lovely as you're imagining. Now live in an apartment where everything in the bathroom but the toilet is a dingy shade that's kind of 2/3 seafoam green and 1/3 olive. Loathe.

A pedestal sink combined and a 2.5 inch deep medicine cabinet means there's no storage. The cabinet is newer and too wide so it doesn't like up over the sink and makes it impossible to hang anything decorative over the toilet. Plus, in a teeny little bathroom, there isn't much room for fun little design elements to contextualize the color. We've got sliding shower doors (which I also loathe) so there's not even need for a shower curtain. I've got an adorable vintage dishtowel I though about hanging over the miniature window, but I'm terrified to make the room darker than it is already. Picking out a bathmat that's no more offensive than necessary is like water torture.

I say long live mid-century design everywhere else in the house, but I'd give my eyeteeth for a clean, bland, modern bathroom.
posted by mostlymartha at 3:32 PM on December 2, 2009


Pink bathrooms are a bit like the tenets of National Socialism. Dude, at least it's an ethos...

The pink bathroom is not the issue here, dude.

(btw I am the aforementioned husband of OP.)
posted by zompus at 3:34 PM on December 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


I miss my yellow and black 1945 "bee bathroom" -- original tiles, and still being loved by my friend who bought the house when I moved. Also, tile walls are so much easier to keep dust-free than our current bathroom (5 years old).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:36 PM on December 2, 2009


Indeed, when they were building Lakewood in California in the late forties, as a demonstration of what was "possible" they put one together from slab (already there) to move in finished in one day. It's still there.
posted by carping demon at 3:56 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not a pink bathroom fan either, however, I hate the bland beige-on-beige decor of today even more. But I'm also a BIG fan of using decent materials. Some of the houses of the 40's and 50's were pre-fab but they were solid prefab in many instances (here in Chicago, anyway) with solid wood doors and nice trim. Even the bungalows from the 1900-1930's here are pretty decent, even though most of them were mass-produced as well.

Embracing the style of the home is easy with a lot of post-WWII housing of the 40's and 50's because you can get lots of cheap salvage from that period, mix brand new mod with vintage (from places like Rejuvenation or Crestview Doors), or you can go totally IKEA/Scandinavian modern. I wouldn't have looked twice at a house like this when I was a kid, but now that I know the possibilities? Wicked cool.

We live in a small Chicago bungalow and have worked hard for the last six years to replace a lot of the great features that the old owners ripped out, while updating it for modern life. Are the bathrooms small? Sure, but with some creativity and attention to usability details, they are really workable. In fact, visitors ooh and ahh over our upstairs bath which is modern AND vintage (complete with a glass shower and a $50 reclaimed salvaged clawfoot tub). All packed into a weirdly narrow space that is about 6.5 feet wide and 12-14 feet long. The downstairs bath is 6.5 feet x 7.5-8 feet. Each room is meant to have multiple purposes, and we use every room every day. Each room feels warm and inviting and has its own visual/emotional interest. Huge McMansions leave me cold. Give me small and interesting any day.
posted by jeanmari at 4:01 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


As someone who bought a house because it had not been restored since the 1940's (for better [1942 Art Deco cork flooring] and for worse [insipid waterstained floral wallpaper]) I'm glad to see this resurgence in keeping the integrity of the original structure and aesthetic of these homes.

Not all of them are so special as they need to be perfectly restored, but wow do I hate seeing the complete "remuddling" of these charming little (often) places. The guy across the street from me tore off the roof and side of his 1920's bungalow and added on a garage that's twice the size of his house as well as a huge second floor. The decor is circa 80's gym. His street numbers glow red at night.

For further reading, I'd recommend Atomic Ranch, which is all about the restoration and renovation of mid-century houses. What I like about the magazine is that it's more about how to achieve a cool vintage look, instead of a perfect vintage look, favoring quirkiness over authenticity, and thrift over perfection.
posted by suki at 4:05 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does it occur to anyone else that HGTV is mostly just placement for gas appliances and wood floors?
posted by Cranberry at 4:12 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would gladly let HGTV erode my early 60's ranch house. MefiMail me for my address. Thanks!
posted by Big_B at 4:25 PM on December 2, 2009


My favorite experience of watching HGTV is watching the show in which people spend thousands of dollars on chintzy crap to prepare their home for "presentation" on the market, followed by the show in which people move into a new home, tear up and throw out all the chintzy crap, and install thousands of dollars of their own chintzy crap, to make the home somehow more consistent with their horrible tastes. I saw one show in which I woman painted over a red wall with red, and the two colors were so close that nobody could tell the difference, but she was insistent and authoritative that the new red was superior to the old.

I must assume HGTV is underwritten by Crate & Barrel and Home Depot are underwriting HGTV, because they are the only ones benefiting from it. It's blatantly obvious to me that the channel is nothing but telemarketing, but I have friends who watch it obsessively.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:41 PM on December 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


>...an original pink bathroom from the 1950s could be a dream come true.

When I first moved to Toronto and discovered Kensington Market I quickly realized that if I could have gone back in time and grabbed pretty much everything from my grandparents house for re-sale in the present day I would have made a freaking fortune.

Personally, I've always loved the decor/design of the '50s; when I saw Far From Heaven in the theatre I was less interested in the story than I was in all the fabulous clothes and furniture on display.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:12 PM on December 2, 2009


> I see a lot of "big" houses that are bland and unimaginative in design.

I've only been in a few houses that you could call McMansions, but the worst thing about almost all of them was how sparsely the people living there chose to decorate. I guess that's the aesthetic these days; minimalize as much as possible. One house in particular had absolutely no personal effects at all anywhere (aside from perhaps the bedrooms, which I didn't enter) aside from one child's drawing on the fridge. Not even family photos. It looked like Patrick Bateman's place.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:17 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's quite a variety of shows and nothing at all like a unity of product placement on HGTV. Accusations of telemarketing just sound ignorant.
posted by fleacircus at 5:39 PM on December 2, 2009


A lot of those "mass-produced" houses from the 1900-1930s were kit homes where people bought the blueprints, the (often good quality) materials, the fixtures and fittings, etc and had them shipped via railroad to them where they or local builders put them together. The Sears Homes are the most famous of the kit houses, but there were dozens of companies/groups that would sell them well into the 1940s. I like this How to ID a Sears House because it talks about how they marketed the house, the 75 page manual, etc. I know that people building the houses would change things around - flip the house layout, use different windows, add a different porch, etc.

The kit homes paved the way for the mass-produced post-war building boom, when bathrooms were suddenly de rigeur (lots of kit homes were sold into the 1930s without a bathroom in the floor plan) and a symbol of the comfort of the new lifestyles - and you didn't have to build the house/oversee the building yourself! You just moved into your new lifestyle conveniently located near your new job.
posted by julen at 5:46 PM on December 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


I like the look of Victorian houses, but around here they are very costly to heat, and the repairs can be daunting.

One thing I wonder though is if the current love for the Victorian era houses/disdain felt by some towards the post-war houses is that the people with these feelings grew up in post-war houses and are annoyed by their warts.

Finally, one quirk of Victorian decorating was that, to get around cutting miter joints, carpenters would often just cut butt joints in line with the end of the door frame and then put a square piece of wood with a decoration cut in it in the gap between the top and the side.
posted by drezdn at 5:53 PM on December 2, 2009


A lot of those "mass-produced" houses from the 1900-1930s were kit homes where people bought the blueprints, the (often good quality) materials, the fixtures and fittings, etc and had them shipped via railroad to them where they or local builders put them together.

Sometimes, yes, the original owners purchased the kits or blueprints and hired the builders to put them together.

Other times, as in this 1914 neighborhood, one builder bought a bunch of trim pieces and doors from a catalog and built all of the homes (with small changes to a common blueprint), THEN sold the homes to buyers. Yep, pre-fab suburban development, 1914-style. Of course, what was suburban in Chicago in 1914 is now urban. I have found advertising brochures in the boxes left behind in our house for new sub-divisions built by developers around the same time period as our house (1900-1920's). The text on the brochures sounds very similar to the ad copy used to promote new developments today, 100 years later (with a few overt and racist exceptions thrown in on the originals).

This is how my husband and I knew how to recreate the living and dining rooms that the previous owners of this house destroyed. There are seven other houses on my block with the exact same living and dining room. We just went over to the neighbor's house and took pictures.
posted by jeanmari at 7:49 PM on December 2, 2009


I like the look of Victorian houses, but around here they are very costly to heat, and the repairs can be daunting.

True, sometimes. However, our house is actually easier to heat with our steam heating system (gets warm more slowly, but the radiators stay warm long after the boiler has cut out). And having smaller rooms instead of a great room, plus a door at the bottom of the stairs keeps heat on the first floor. Now that I used some elbow grease and new parts to repair the radiators, the steam heat is completely silent. Not a bang, whistle or hiss. It was easier and more pleasurable for me to learn repair and maintenance of an attractive old house, than it was to try and figure it out on my parents' contemporary suburban home (which somehow managed to look shabby only four years after it was built).

Windows are taller in these old houses and there seems to be more of them. Lots of light and view. Wood storms paired with original windows keep out the drafts and cold, and can be tuned up/repaired when needed (instead of having to replace vinyl double-glazed). We lower the top half of the double-hung windows in the summer and heat near the ceiling flows out, which cooler air comes in the bottom. Built-ins don't have to be dusted under. Tiny windows in all of the closets provide an easy way to air them out. There are lots of clever old house hacks and tricks.

We've modernized it, of course. Replaced all the plumbing and electricity. Installed Cat-5. Insulated it. Installed mini-duct air conditioning. Have modern, energy efficient appliances and put a laundry chute in a center closet.

There is great comfort knowing that this crazy old house has been here for almost 100 years, is solid as a rock, and looks great.
posted by jeanmari at 8:04 PM on December 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Some of the coolest renovations that I've ever seen are in Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn). They have an annual house tour which is completely worth it.
posted by kathrineg at 8:05 PM on December 2, 2009


Our mid 70's house is being slowly eroded by time alone. The outgassing cupboards have shelves which are collapsing. The green and gold shag carpet, full of carpet beetles, is tearing and the wool backing is crunchy underfoot as it decomposes into dust. The wall oven had its first repair, but as the brand (Gaffers & Sattler) has gone out of business, it cannot be repaired again as no parts are available.

We (family of the original owners) have restuccoed twice, this last time should help with fire resistance in these dry hills.

A full repipe was costly, as there is NO crawl space. Just an area between flat ceiling and hot flat roof where the pipes and asbestos wrapped a/c ducts run. On a hot day, the water has to run for several minutes until cold water comes out. A new power main panel was installed last year, and we should really put in new wiring as well. While not cloth wrapped, the wires are barely to code now.

A new a/c system is now on the roof, and has already recouped its purchase price in electricity savings alone.

The pool was an engineering marvel, with several tons of concrete pumped around it at building to prevent it from shifting. It now needs an acid wash at least, although the deteriorating surfaces should be completely redone, with the commensurate 50K gallon sewer charge from DWP.

The only benefit to this house is that the designer is still alive. Our neighbors found him so they could ask him which walls were load bearing, as no documentation of it was made.

The construction of the house was delayed while the city waited to see if the hillside behind it was stable. Their concrete culverts haven't shifted through 4 major earthquakes. We had to remove the sugar pines planted 30 years ago as they were dying and falling over. 60 feet of pine threatening my bedroom wasn't pleasant. The bare hillside is much more relaxing and entertaining, as I can see the squirrels and rabbits playing among the native plants, which the gardener loves to whack down as weeds...

I would ADORE a TV show where this house could be made a bit ...more. All it has right now is square footage. I would trade that for counterspace in a heartbeat...
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 8:15 PM on December 2, 2009


50 to 60 years seems to be the most dangerous time for historical preservation. They're just not quite old enough to seem worth preserving to most people but they're run down enough that they need a lot of renovation.

My understanding is that the danger point is actually a bit earlier than that, about 40 years. Like you say, old enough to need renovation but not old enough to be loved. And 40 years is approximately two generations -- so the generation doing the tear-downs gets to rebel against the generation that did the building.

Most victorians are, by todays standards, custom built homes with a huge amount of craftsmanship and skilled manual labor involved building each one, so they have an appeal beyond nostalgia.

Some, but not all. A lot of the really crappy houses of that vintage have already been torn down, and the nice ones we are used to are not totally representative of the era. And even in surviving ones there are a lot of construction details that are so far removed from even the most minimal of modern building codes as to be on another planet. I've been in some where they used shockingly minimal wood in the walls and roof, for example.

Conversely, a lot of '50s and '60s construction is really solid. It's new enough to have taken advantage of modern engineering and new-fangled materials, but old enough to have had cheap access to old-growth timber. A lot of the details that are considered standard in contemporary architecture were fully realized in mid-century modern houses, particularly in kitchens and bathrooms, and also in things like central air and heat, closets, etc.
posted by Forktine at 8:36 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


All of you macho men hating on the 1950s-era pink bathrooms: they are not ALL pink, silly. Ours has black accent tiles, and confetti-on-black linoleum flooring, and it's like washing inside of a box of Good N Plenty. You haven't lived until you have.
posted by Scram at 10:51 PM on December 2, 2009


My favorite of the "home improvement" TV atrocities is when people come in talking about how they're going to "green" their house because, you know, we owe it to our children to leave them a better world and blah blah blah and so they rip out and discard (no recycling in this green paradise) perfectly good rooms so they can install bamboo flooring and non-outgassing cabinetry and glass tile and so on and so on. It just boggles the mind to see people rambling on and on about living in harmony with the earth while they're destroying a well-built, emissions-stable pink bathroom that would last another sixty years without a problem because it's "ugly." What's really green is leaving good stuff alone, but it's really not about green as much as it is popular tastes and people's itchy consumerist desire to constantly "refresh" their spaces because they're boring people who can't understand that it's their own lack of ingenuity or understanding making their spaces boring, not the turquoise toilet.
posted by sonascope at 3:20 AM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


My 1949 pink and black bathroom thanks you for this post. When we bought the house it had 80's style black wallpaper with a pink and white paint splatter design. We have since painted the walls a lighter shade of pink.

As for the quality of my post-war colonial, EVERY single person who as ever done any kind of work on this house has commented on how solid it is compared to today's houses. Now if only we had the original metal cabinetry in the kitchen...
posted by Biblio at 5:45 AM on December 3, 2009


My house was built in the 1830s. When I sit down in my computer chair, I roll to the right a foot or so because the floor is so slanted. Our basement has a dirt floor. I can touch the ceiling in some places, and I'm 5'1".

Our bathroom isn't pink, though, and for that I'm grateful.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:50 AM on December 3, 2009


Most victorians are, by todays standards, custom built homes with a huge amount of craftsmanship and skilled manual labor involved building each one, so they have an appeal beyond nostalgia.

To be fair, while there was great craftsmanship, lots of the parts of most Victorian houses were factory built and picked from catalogs. Very little was custom made. In their time, they were viewed as McMansions, quickly built by immigrant labor for boom time new rich. I live in a 1865 Italianate townhouse and it is very well built but all of the details in the house are duplicated in many of the other houses in the neighborhood. In fact, the window/door casing is so common in old houses around here that I can still go down to the local millwork and buy it right off the shelf.

Also, there's a big selection bias when you're looking at real estate that still exists 140 years after it was built. All of the badly built buildings are long gone. The cheap and dangerous frame tenements built as factory housing either burnt or were condemned year ago.
posted by octothorpe at 8:34 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The thing that turns me off to most of the 1950's homes is the low quality of the construction. It seems to me that most of the houses were put up as quickly as possible for the least amount of money. The craftsmanship just isn't there. That's why the beautiful Victorian or Arts & Crafts houses are still amazing and the mid-century houses are not."

Seconding octothorpe, 90% of the crap housing built a hundred years has been removed so naturally only the good stuff remains. And as with everything else material science in construction is orders of magnitude more advanced than it was then. So for example a modern house will have copper or plastic water pipes with no-lead connections vs. galvanized or even lead pipes in older homes; double insulated wiring with grounds, decent levels of insulation, vapour and air barriers to keep that insulation working sans mold, plastic drain piping instead of cast iron, subfloors that are glued sheet material greatly reducing squeaks etc ad naseum. I'd love to be able to afford some of the clear grain trim that old houses show off but really it is the only outstanding benefit. Everything else can be easily (with the exception of coved ceilings) duplicated if one desired.

"carpenters would often just cut butt joints in line with the end of the door frame and then put a square piece of wood with a decoration cut in it in the gap between the top and the side."

That square piece of wood is called a rosette block.
posted by Mitheral at 1:19 PM on December 3, 2009


plastic drain piping instead of cast iron

I've read that iron drain pipes are better because they are quieter. Is there a maintenance issue I'm not aware of? Obvously cast iron would cost more to purchase and install as compared to PVC.
posted by exogenous at 2:17 PM on December 3, 2009


Is there a maintenance issue I'm not aware of?

Rust comes to mind; cast iron is also rougher so you have more issues with friction (a very minor issue in household plumbing, however) and with the diameter slowly narrowing as solids build up on the walls of the pipe.
posted by Forktine at 2:59 PM on December 3, 2009


"I've read that iron drain pipes are better because they are quieter. Is there a maintenance issue I'm not aware of? Obvously cast iron would cost more to purchase and install as compared to PVC."

Disadvantages of cast iron vs. plastic.

1) Comes in short lengths so a joint every few feet, which means more leaks. Really comes into play in places with trees as the joints are easily penetrated by tree roots where plastic is virtually immune. I'd guess this is also a problem where the ground moves regularly. Cast is pretty inflexible and the joints will loosen while plastic pipe bends a lot before breaking.

2) Both material and labour costs are easily an order of magnitude more expensive. Plumbing stack effectively constrains the layout of the whole house by dictating placement of Kitchen, laundry and bathroom. Changes in the future are very difficult. Especially in multi story homes as the stack is very heavy.

3) Wears out from rust and builds up constrictions as noted by Forktine. The latter is a manageable maintenance item.

4) Joints were made via poured lead though I imagine a more friendly to the environment and the installer sealant is now available.

5) Because plastic molds are cheaper to make there are many more specialty fittings available making initial construction and renovations more flexible.

6) Corrosion of even brass fittings in cast iron systems can often make removing a bung practically if not actually impossible. You haven't lived until you've had a clean bung finally let go after you've resorted to hanging off an eight foot snipe on a 4' pipe wrench to remove it. Essentially a non issue with plastic. This is an image of a main clean out on a 1900s house I recently toured which was moved to it's current location where it got a new basement and services around 1940. I'm guessing it was thought at the time that a bolt on cap would be easier to remove in the future. It probably is in that bolts are pretty easy to cut through. 'Course it'd be a mite bit harder if the clean out was buried in a wall.

7) Finally, and this is a very minor issue, cast stacks leak more heat because cast iron conducts heat better than foamed ABS (which is what waste pipe is made of around here).

Cast is probably quieter but you could obtain the same thing with plastic by casting it in concrete and still come out ahead cost wise. However I'd bet most of the time people probably notice noisy plastic drain pipes cast wouldn't be used in that location because of the weight, cost and routing issues. I'm thinking long runs to master en suites or half baths.
posted by Mitheral at 7:35 PM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Before I bought the house I (we!) live in now, I rented an apartment that had been built in the 1950s. The tub was that toothpaste blue colour, although everything else had been replaced by white fixtures. It made that room a particular challenge to decorate, but boy, did my nieces love that tub. They'd bring PJs with them to my apartment when I had the family over for dinner, just so they could get a bath in my blue tub.
posted by LN at 7:36 AM on December 4, 2009


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