Into the abyss again

The Old House Web
Into the abyss again

Forced into quick action by a misguided plumber

Index to all stories in series

By Nancy Platteborze

Nancy Platteborze
Nancy -- Great at sanding doors, but not so great at finding plumbers.

I want to acknowledge a brutal fact: I hate being my own contractor. I'm too nice and I have no experience. I am competent at finding things, but it's hit or miss with subcontractors.

I hired two: electrician and plumber. Electricians a hit; plumbers a miss.

My electrician is a professional. He came in, did all the rough-in downstairs, showed me how to lay out my kitchen for cupboards, moved my electric service to where I wanted it, accepted the amount of money we had agreed to, and that was that.

The plumber was a different story.

The bathroom that shouldn't have been

This 5 x 8 space, with its two level ceiling,  is the bathroom that shouldnt have been started and that I fear will never be done.

Ever since my first bad contractor experience, I take great pains to explain my intentions to my two subcontractors.

The electrician, Dave, gets it; Bob the plumber never will. But of course you dont know that until youve signed a contract and are in so thick you lose hope of ever getting your ideas across, getting what you want -- or getting your money back.

The upstairs was supposed to be our sacred space to live in while resurrecting the downstairs -- then we were going to flip. I came home from teaching one night. The upstairs bath was ripped apart -- no toilet, no sink, the four-foot clawfoot tub disconnected.

Suddenly, the upstairs bath was an emergency, the very thing I was trying to avoid.

I called Bob the plumber. He proudly complimented himself on having rigged up the old toilet downstairs so wed have something to use.

"Sorry to have broken it as I was putting it in," he said, "but Ill be back first thing in the morning to fix it. Itll only take five minutes."

The "temporary" fix was a stirring stick in the back of the toilet. We had to pull the paint stirrer out so the toilet would flush, then pick up the lever inside the back of the toilet and slip the paint stirrer back in before it overflowed -- which it did every time somebody who wasnt "in the know" flushed the thing.

To add insult to injury, the toilet leaked. This was before Christmas. He fixed it second week of March.

Too authentic for comfort

Old privy
A little too authentic. A Colonial period privy sits outside the house next to an old croquet set. Nancy opted for a bathroom with working plumbing -- not to mention more privacy.

The original bathroom to the house was a red wooden box with a hole in the top and a door in the front with brass hinges that opened to a bucket.

The previous owners wanted a bathroom, so they rigged one up between the two bedrooms upstairs, between the chimney and outer wall. The tub was along the chimney; the toilet and sink were on the outer wall. The toilet was three inches -- yes, inches -- from the tub, requiring the user to sit sidesaddle. A door on each end opened to each bedroom. The whole thing was 5 x 5. It was a clever, if tragic use of space.

I wanted to enlarge it and add a little hall at the top of the stairs so you didnt have to walk through a bedroom to get to it. I felt free to do whatever I wanted with this bathroom because it wouldnt have existed originally in this house. Going Colonial struck me as silly. Going Victorian would be too fancy.

So I went way back. Roman and Greek baths were both too fancy, but closer to where I wanted to go. I envisioned water and stone.

An "aha" actually woke me up one night -- an ancient grotto! A natural stone cave, with fossils in the walls, where somebody would go to contemplate or bathe in a fountain of water.

Showering at the YMCA

Nancy ended up with plumbing on three walls surrounding her bathtub.

Dana Pelkie
Working in a 5 x 8 room. Dana Pelkie grouts floor tiles.

carrying trash
Then it's down the very narrow and steep staircase to dump the grout waste water.

Jude and I spent a month and a half showering at our local YMCA after Bob turned our plans into a frenzy.

He removed the clawfoot tub and showed up with a shallow shower tub. My bathroom is too small for a five-foot clawfoot, so I chose the next best thing -- a soaking tub that fit snugly against all three walls.

Bob argued with me, insisting that the shower tub was what I wanted. I made him take it back.

In the meantime, my carpenter was working like the devil to level the floor, since there was now no time to pull it up. He shimmed it from the center up two inches at the walls, and did his best to square and plumb the walls so that Bob could set the tub.

This meant moving the heating register, taking down my sons bedroom wall, and framing a new one, taking down the door to the bathroom on my bedroom side and closing that in so that the tub could go on that wall, and putting backing up for tile.

Now because the floor is shimmed, there's a step up into the bathroom and the new ceiling is lower than the old ceiling. This tiny bathroom ceiling has two levels.

The chimney created unique, but solvable plumbing problems. The solutions eluded Bob.

He put the shower on the chimney side of the wall, the tub spout and shower valve on my bedroom wall (mid-tub), and the drain and stopper on the outer wall.

"Its such a small bathroom, it doesnt matter," was his repeated explanation for the dispersed plumbing.

His attitude drove me wild - but I was cold, dirty, and tired. It didnt take a lot to wear me down. And he did wear me down.

Ecstasy and despair

I came home from work one night to my new bathtub! Cherubs might as well have been flying around its rim singing little hallelujahs.

I felt the weirdest combination of ecstasy and despair. It was the same shallow shower tub I had him return.

"Oh no," he explained. "Look closely -- the drains on the opposite end! You can still have your old whatchamacallit (my ancient grotto) -- just keep the shower curtain closed."

I had a contract with this man. He still had a lot of work to do. I still had no working bathroom. I had a paint stirrer on the broken toilet downstairs. I still needed everything.

Do I have him rip out the bathtub? No, I decided - hell only put the wrong one in a third time. I dont have the energy. And that was just the tub.

"You cant do anything"

I wanted a pedestal sink. Bob wanted a drop in china lavatory, so thats what he planned for. I told him where I wanted the toilet and sink and he decided to put them elsewhere.

In all fairness, the toilet could not go against the chimney wall because the chimney had been reduced to rubble above the floor line.

Bob put the waste pipe against the outer wall. But then he positioned the sink plumbing so that you wouldnt be able to stand in front of it.

"It doesnt matter," he said, "you cant do anything with a bathroom this small."

I made him move the pipes. Bob asked to be released from his contract. He asked to "settle up" for work he had already done.

Now I was $6,000 poorer, and still had no bathroom no sink, no toilet. The single fixture, the wrong bathtub, had a polished brass drain and stopper, chrome shower valve and tub filler in the middle of the wall, chrome showerhead against the chimney wall.

I have bugs!

One of Nancy's beloved bugs

But Ive got bugs! Ive got bugs and Ive got the beginnings of my ancient grotto. I chose slate-mix-color tiles for the bathroom floor because they look sometimes old and sometimes like ground to me. And I chose thick, rugged, textured floor tiles for the walls to look cave-like.

I wanted contrast between floor and walls for interest. The recessed window adds to the grotto feel and will have an ivy growing in and around it.

An overwhelmed antique dealer offered me a beautiful pedestal sink. Not a chip on it. It has a Greek column pedestal that is fancier than Id like, but helps deliver the ancient atmosphere and it was a bargain at $50.

I found these unglazed tiles with my beloved bugs in a catalogue. They really give the fossil-grotto-nature feel I want. I put 4 coats of Tile Lab on them for protection and am hoping for the best. They were very difficult to install as they not only were bigger than the regular tiles, each was just a little different from the next.

David, my part-time carpenter, managed to make his tile job look uniform. I think he did a tremendous job. The border around the top helped - these are Italian tiles with a rough texture to go with the walls.

David Pelkie
Man meets bug. David Pelkie, Nancy's part-time carpenter, seems puzzled by her choice in tile.

Rugged, textured floor tiles for a "cave-like" look.

David was baffled about the bugs -- though hes now very proud of them and shows everybody.

The bathroom extends a little into the hallway - so that I wouldnt end up with a long, dark, skinny hallway. David was going to sheetrock the wall on the chimney side, but I had the bright idea to build a cabinet in that space - and thats what we did.

I still have to paint it, decide on hardware and put the door on. I need a toilet, I need a faucet, I need these fixtures set, I need to paint my medicine cabinet thats going over the sink, I need to finish the higher part of the ceiling, put in a new light/vent, paint the window, seal the grout, put up my toilet paper holder, two travertine shelves, my iron (with protective coating) towel holder, door, and robe hook.

And this rooms the closest to "finished" Ive got!

Editor's note: We hope you've enjoyed reading Nancy's adventures in rehabilitating her 1700s house. OHW will periodically report on her progress in future installments. For a list of all the stories in this series, click here.

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