Watershed Moment

By: Mark Clement , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings

“Make a decision and the rest will follow” goes a Chinese proverb I once read and perhaps never was that more poignant in my home improvement life than when I faced a daunting bathroom remodel.

The house, mine, a centegenarian American 4-Square.

The situation, a bedroom converted to a bathroom (when plumbing was brought inside, the story goes) then hit like a freight train by the worst conceivable taste from the 1970s.

The birch-paneling sheeted the plaster. The mustard-colored tub had a drywall soffit above it so low that it was like showering in a closet. And the laminate-veneered, particleboard vanity was coming, literally, un-glued.

If this were a featureless tract-house slammed up in not-so-distant past I’d say “gut it” with nary a thought. All the signals are there. But the larger question, one facing the improvers of all old homes, popped up: do we restore this room to its original condition? Or do we blast it and build it back with the same integrity with which it was originally intended? Behind the plaster and between the old-growth floor joists, our answer waited.

Making a Decision Begins with Respect

But not for long. Before I tell you what we did, it’s important, I think, to share that we didn’t undertake the decision lightly. We respect old buildings, their function, design and endurance. We see them as treasures, not playthings for our personal whims.

That said, this treasure begged for blow-out:

  • The plaster was pulverized not just by the million nails driven through the paneling, but by years of water leaks from an old roof
  • The luscious strip floor had no sub floor and it had been sanded, leaving it barely ½ inch thick.
  • And new wiring had been (badly) integrated with the existing knob-and-tube

Bottom line is, while we believe answering the “restore it or gut it” quandary is vital to working in old homes, its to be taken seriously and open-mindedly. As much respect as I have for traditional buildings, nothing last forever. That mortality, if you will, presents an opportunity. In building back our mangled bathroom, we can detail it for the next century, adding among other things, insulation along with the period details and modern finishes.

After great care, we made our decision. Now the rest follows.