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Thursday, August 18, 2011

I am not ready for my childhood to be "retro" -- but it is.
Posted by Jill | 5:37 AM
When we first bought our house, a friend came over with her mother on the day we closed, took one look around, and said "You are going to be working on this house until the day you die."

After fifteen years and about $60,000 worth of siding, windows, roofing, gutters, a refinished basement, two water heaters, a furnace, and an upgraded electrical panel, I'm still ashamed to have a party. The longer you live in a house, the more daunting it becomes to have work done in it.

My next project (and I know my limitations so I don't end up on Renovation Realities), was going to be the downstairs bathroom. It's a 1950's cape cod house, so the bathroom is one of those tiny 5 x 7 functional-only bathrooms. I had a bath designer come out, and explained to her my vision of a step into yesteryear with gleaming white subway tile, a pan shower replacing the hulking seafoam-green tub with the massive rusting chip in it and the curved bottom that plots to kill me every time I step into it, and white hex tile with black accents. I knew the minute she walked in the door that her company would not try to get this job, because she came armed with a fat stack of glossy brochures from the kind of high-end cabinetry companies to which I'm sure the Real Housewives of New Jersey refer when remodeling their bathrooms every five years, sending the old fixtures to Green Demolitions.

Then Mr. Brilliant was laid off in January, and I started looking around said bathroom, and suddenly it seemed like a waste of $10,000-$15,000 to gut a bathroom with plaster walls and replace it with sheetrock. Yes, it's one of those 1950's tile bathrooms, but while most bathrooms of that era that are seafoam-green-and-black have the black tiles as accents, mine has black wall tile with the green accents. So I started to reconsider. We're hoping not to have to age in place, because the property taxes in New Jersey will kill us, assuming we're ever able to retire. So it may not pay to do the shower conversion right now. The tile is in good shape, and while the floor is a dull green that needs replacement and a new subfloor, and the holes in the ceiling that had to be punched so that a leaking pipe from the upstairs bathroom could be replaced have to be patched, but it occurred to me that perhaps this bathroom could be saved for the cost of a new vanity or sink, a few boxes of hex tile from Home Depot, a new mirror and a couple of well-placed shallow wall cabinets, a new light bar, and the labor to deal with the difficult stuff.

So I started looking around for photos that others had taken of their sow's ear bathrooms turned into silk purses. It isn't so much that I wanted to return it to its 1950's glory, though I did recently find on Freecycle a listing for an original seafoam green sink and toilet and thought about it for about five minutes until remembering that the seafoam green is the part of this bathroom I loathe most. But in these austere times, the days of the $20,000 Zen retreat seem to be over.

While looking for others who had scaled back their plans, I stumbled on Pam Kueber's very cool Retro Renovations site. Pam isn't just about learning to live with mid-20th-century tackiness, she's about reveling in it as some kind of Golden Age of Design. For someone like me, who is old enough to remember chrome-wrapped boomerang kitchen tables and who worships regularly at the altar of Gustav Stickley, it was difficult to wrap my mind around this concept. But Pam's enthusiasm, and that of her readers, is so infectious that I almost found myself starting to appreciate the design sensibility of my childhood.


But who knew that there is, in this country, an entire subculture of people who, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to make their midcentury houses look like McMansions, have chosen instead to restore them to their original hideous glory, with pink bathrooms and ugly Don Draper sofas and pink kitchen appliances and tulip chairs.

If you watch This Old House, or read the magazine, there's always a bit of self-importance about restoring an old Queen Anne, or a Victorian, or especially a Craftsman house (which is my own particular favorite design aesthetic). Perhaps it's because these eras all pre-date anyone who's still alive today, which gives them a hushed museum quality to which that kind of reverence fits. But the mid-20th-century aesthetic, with its absurd turquoise kitchens and seafoam green bathrooms and bright orange sofas and kidney-shaped coffee tables, has a kind of gleeful tastelessness that after you read Pam Kueber's blog, makes you kind of understand it, even if you aren't quite ready to contact that guy getting rid of the seafoam green bathroom sink.

Today Pam Kueber has attained that revered condition of Blog Nirvana -- a LONG profile in the New York Times. Go check it out, and then check out Retro Renovations.

As for me, next time I go to get my hair done, I'm going to check out World of Tile on Route 22 in Springfield. Who knows, they might have the same seafoam green and black floor tile that I have now, and perhaps when it hasn't been trod on for fifty years it looks awesome.

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Blogger Pangolin said...
Agh, my eyes. That was NOT fair. Those are NSFW pictures of kitchen cabinetry if ever there was such a thing.

It makes you almost imagine that some day people will be scouring the catalogs for the avocado refrigerators and baby-poo yellow formica counter-tops of the 70's.


Couldn't you have started with an art deco house instead? Now there was some style.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
If you have a roof that doesn't leak, no termites, walls that retain heat in the winter and cool in the summer, don't even dream of screwing around with it.

I worked as a carpenter off and on for 20 years. Rework is incredibly expensive. If I did a remodel, I got cash in advance and whenever it dropped below what I thought things would cost, I demanded more cash.

If you cannot pay cash on the spot, you cannot afford to remodel.

I love your blog and I'm not going to try to blow smoke up your ass. Don't do anything.

Blogger O~ said...
I really like your tile - those colors would be really easy to work with/around.

Anonymous odp said...
I feel an affinity with your aesthetic, as I sit in my 1961 ranch house (into which in 5 years we have put half our life savings towards seismic foundation retrofit, 100 linear feet of French drains which also necessitated a new patio, reformation of two exterior walls to restore framing timbers destroyed by years of water damage, replacement of the bottom of our shower before it fell into the crawlspace, a new roof and attic insulation, and electrical upgrade), leafing through my American Bungalow and Style 1900 subscriptions, watching our IRAs tank, and pining for the day we can tear the kitchen out to the walls and joists and start over, getting rid of the "renovation" by someone who never heard of a plumb line or a spirit level, confused half-inch particle board with quarter-inch masonite, didn't believe in drawer pulls or cabinet knobs, and thought L brackets should shore up the inside of drawers, securing them with round-head screws.

Best of luck to you!

Blogger Jill said...
odp: I don't get Style 1900 but I do get American Bungalow, and I leaf through it the same way you do. Of course we see only the "after" photos of these lovingly restored houses. To see what it takes, I've always enjoyed this site.

Blogger BadTux said...
The deal with renovating a house of that era is to do it respectfully, but update the look enough so that it's not simply obnoxious. I might update the tile to have a black and white checkered pattern, for example, that is a classic look that never goes out of style and certainly could have been put into a home of that era, but that avocado lime green tile and the sparkle laminate countertops have to go. Sorry, they just have to. My eyes, oh my aching eyes!

So anyhow, good luck. Just note that the majority of the cost here is going to be labor, not materials. If you're not particularly handy, you should take some of those courses offered by the big box home repair stores and see what you can do yourself rather than paying other people to do.

- Badtux the Handy Penguin

Anonymous odp said...
Jill, thanks for the link! Now, if I only had talent...