Would you like to know something insane? OK I’LL TELL YOU.
Last Friday was the anniversary of the closing on my house. 3 whole
Just kidding, it’s 4 years.
Actually wait, 5 years.
Fuck. It’s 6 years. I have some feelings about it, as you
The very first time I came to Kingston, it was for a weekend
with friends. We stayed in an Airbnb only a few blocks from the
house I’d later go on to buy. Some sleuthing revealed that the
owners (now friends of mine—something that tends to happen when
you move to a place like this!) were a couple of young guys who had
bought the house less than a year prior to our stay. The house was
very nice, and every part of it had seemingly received some level
of attention to prepare it for comfortable occupancy. Walls had
been skimmed and painted, furniture and window treatments
installed, and the oak floors refinished to a pleasant shade of
So it’s with some cringing embarrassment that I’ll now admit
to feeling like the renovation was nice enough, but…could
have been better. Freshly painted acoustic tiles still covered
some original plaster ceilings, new electrical work had been run in
exposed plastic channels rather than behind walls and ceilings, and
inexpensive floating laminate flooring hid what was likely layers
of old flooring in the kitchen. The bathrooms had been updated with
a sheet of linoleum flooring, that unconvincing variety meant to
look like natural stone, and the chipped and broken 1930s wall
tiles had been painted a deep navy—including the mastic that was
revealed when some of them had fully detached—rather than
restored or replaced. All of this struck me as kind of a bummer. It
was all fine but also not what I would have done. I held this
belief with all the authority of somebody whose restoration
experience started and ended with spending two years fixing up a
600 square foot Brooklyn apartment. If I’d only had a house, I
could show these people how it was really done. Thoroughly.
Lovingly. Do it right or don’t do it at all.
Sitting here today, I wish I could go back and slap that judge-y
expression right off my dumb fucking face. What these owners had
done was not only practical but smart: in most cases they’d done
just enough to make the house cozy and clean, which in turn allowed
them to begin renting it, which in turn augmented their income,
which in turn allowed them to save for the renovations they’d
complete down the line. I just hadn’t given them the benefit of
the doubt that they had further plans beyond what I could see.
Eventually they put in a very nice brand new kitchen. They
renovated the bathrooms in a classic and elegant style befitting of
a Victorian home. Having a “good enough” kind of solution in
the interim took the pressure off to do it all at once, and allowed
them to do something within mere months that I have not been able
to comfortably do for six years: to stop apologizing. To host
overnight guests and dinner parties. To have the flexibility to put
the renovation on hold because everything is already fine.
To be fair: comparing your renovation to your perception of
someone else’s is generally unhelpful. All houses are different.
While their bathroom tiles on the first floor had been damaged from
80 years of use, mine had been ripped
from the wall because they were spattered with human remains.
While their exterior work mostly entailed repainting and gardening,
mine has involved tearing down multiple additions and reimagining
entire elevations. It’s been difficult—to say the least—to
prioritize all the many moving parts of renovating this house, and
I’m positive I’ve erred from time to time in that
agenda-setting. I’m sure I will continue to, because it’s hard.
Like everyone else, I’m at the mercy of time and money and
weather and a million other challenges big and small with a project
of this scope.
And yet: SIX. YEARS. And it’s hard to imagine there aren’t
at least another six ahead of me, and probably six more after that.
It’s a slog. A satisfying, gratifying, at times exciting,
sometimes fun, difficult-to-explain, always educational, and
frequently humbling slog. Nothing in my house brings this into
sharper relief than my bathroom.
Yes, I have a bathroom. I showed
it to you once, almost 6 years ago, when it looked like this.
In preparation to sell, obviously someone had done some rushed
repair work on the walls and put in a new drywall ceiling, which
was slowly being ruined by the still-leaking roof above. Given that
the downstairs bathroom was basically a crime scene, this one
didn’t seem so bad. As is my habit, I was blinded by a few
FOR EXAMPLE, THIS SINK. I mean. There were so many parts of this
house that I loved at first sight, but this sink was high on that
list. The idea that someone else might buy the house and rip it out
made me even more determined to make sure it was mine. Sometimes
when people are over I like to joke that I hope the dump will
accept it when I get around to replacing it, just to watch the
reaction. It’s endlessly fun to me and only me.
Above the sink is this sweet little glass shelf and this
beautiful mirror. Of course I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that
the sink/shelf/mirror combo hasn’t changed since the bathroom was
first installed around 1890.
Where did the 1890 date come from? This hurts, you guys. This
bathroom had its original toilet when I bought the house. Most
toilet tank lids have a manufacturing date stamped on the
underside, and I’m pretty sure this one said 1890. The plumbing
wasn’t turned on until a few hours before we had to start living
here, so we didn’t realize that none of it really worked—the
waste line running from this bathroom to the basement had an
impressive crack all the way down it, both toilets in the house
leaked…I don’t know, it was a bad scene that we needed to deal
with ASAP. At the time, I was precious about plenty of things (see:
sink) but not an old toilet—old toilets are finicky and
inefficient and a little gross, right?!
DAMNIT, DANIEL. Let’s pretend that the base and the tank were
irreparably cracked or something, which might actually be true. But
what I absolutely know is true is that I went out and bought a new
toilet—a totally basic and inexpensive Kohler—and oversaw
plumbers as they removed this one. Which, after lots of grunting
and moaning and jostling, ended with one of the guys taking a
SLEDGHAMMER to the base to get it out. It was stuck down to that
little painted platform (probably installed to cover some rotted
flooring—I don’t want to know) with some crazy adhesive putty
stuff and they just could not get it to budge.
Hindsight, man. It hurts sometimes. I’m not trying to tell you
how to run your life (lol yes I am), but if you have an original
toilet…toilets haven’t changed that much since their
inception, except sadly in the way they look, and can usually be
retrofitted with new parts to bring them back into perfect working
order. Pretty much without exception, toilets made before the 1950s
are SO pretty, and I really don’t quite understand why nobody is
reproducing these elegant old designs. There are
decent options I’m aware of for historic renovations—as in,
they might fit in more seamlessly than something decidedly
modern—but they really don’t look like any actual old toilet
I’ve seen. Someone ought to do something about this issue of
grave social concern.
Enough about the toilet. I can’t think about it anymore. The
nice old shitter with the wall-mounted tank is long gone and
that’s that. Keep an eye out for very old toilets because I want
to put one back someday.
Which brings us to the tub! This is very obviously not the
original tub. It’s probably from the 1960s? But it is enameled
cast iron and 100% decent. Never in a million years would I pick it
for this bathroom, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
Except for the hot and cold valves, which both leak like crazy
when they’re on. I have done exactly nothing to try to identify
the source of the leak or improve the situation, in spite of the
wild temperature fluctuations that occur during most showers, or
the way you have to avoid standing in a certain spot lest the leak
from the hot valve scald your delicate ankles.
Also, note the shower surround. That is not tile. That is
certainly not a slab. That is…Formica!! In fact it’s the exact
same Formica that clad the
first floor kitchen’s countertops when I moved in.
I don’t think this has ever been what Formica is for, so on
one hand it’s held up impressively well—by which I mean, it’s
still clinging to the wall. On the other hand, it’s fucking
disgusting and slathered in generous layers of caulk and a light
spattering of mold and…sigh, I am a trash human.
The floor, by the way, is a vinyl tile that looks kind of like
terrazzo. I am a life-long terrazzo fanatic, and there’s actually
something I kind of like about the floor except that it’s in this
bathroom. The colors are so aggressively unpleasant and the tiles
are lifting off the plywood subfloor and a couple of them have
And so. After 6 years of living, the bathroom looks like this.
It’s funny—I recently told a houseguest with absolute certainty
that the walls have always been exactly as peel-y as they appear in
this photo, but looking back I can see that isn’t true. Which
really speaks to the extent to which I’ve truly turned a blind
eye to this room, to the point that I didn’t notice that it was,
evidently, actively degrading around me.
Very small efforts have been made. Very small things have
happened by necessity. Note how there is some shelving crammed in
there between the tub and the wall. A colorful shower curtain is
trying and failing very hard to make things mildly cheerful. I hung
a couple hooks for towels.
What is happening in this image? Well. There’s a crumpled
fabric bin thing on top of the toilet tank to hold excess stuff
because there’s not enough storage in here. That little print
next to the shelf is concealing some large holes I made almost 6
years ago, when I was trying to install an outlet and decided a
1″ spade bit was a good choice for test-drilling. First I ran
into the cast iron vent pipe. Then I ran into the dead gas line for
the original lighting. Undeterred, I then ran into a stud. All with
this massive drill bit! I have learned some things, thank god.
The larger print “covers” a hilariously awkwardly placed
hole where I did successfully install the outlet, only to remove it
a couple of years later when the electric to this room got
eliminated in the course of other work. That’s when I ran new
electric but in exposed conduit this time, since I didn’t want to
take out walls or ceilings. Since there’s no active electric
currently in the
old upstairs kitchen—the room behind that wall—I stuck a
power strip through the hilariously awkward hole in the wall to
allow me to power a few tools.
It’s called elegance, look it up.
The light over the sink is a Radar Sconce
from Schoolhouse Electric, bequeathed to me by my mother who
ordered it for her place but then couldn’t use it. It has got to
be the worst-looking installation of what’s otherwise a nice
light in history. I’m sorry, Schoolhouse. You make nice things
and I don’t deserve them.
The window is nice. The top sash contains the only stained glass
in the house, and the bottom sash is one big piece of glass rather
than divided like all my other windows. I put a piece of vinyl
window frosting over it for privacy.
Note that the formica continues around this side of the room on
the lower half of the walls. I got this little cabinet from IKEA,
which turns out to be cute but nearly worthless when it comes to
SO ANYWAY. Now you have an intimate and detailed glimpse of the
space where I have cleaned my body and wiped my butt for the past 6
years. I have unburdened myself and now you get to live with this
very likely unwanted information. No matter how much I clean this
bathroom, it always looks and feels dirty, and I’m truly
mortified whenever someone other than myself needs to use it.
“You didn’t shower, right?” This is what I asked my friend
Anna, the cleanest half-Swede
and best caulk artist I know, recently over coffee after an
“Oh no,” she replied. “I’m afraid of your shower,”
seeming to imply that she would have showered, had the conditions
looked less like a staph infection waiting to happen. I cherish
this moment because it was so perfectly honest. A polite stranger
might lie about forgetting their shampoo or liking to shower at
night, but a true friend gives you the straight dope. I love you,
but you’re living like a wild animal.
It’s hard to imagine that over the course of six years, never
has this bathroom floated to the top of a priority list. You might
be thinking why not just…and believe me, I have the same thought
all the time. But if you’ll excuse some brief self-compassion, it
really just hasn’t been a priority. As-is, it’s ugly as hell
but it works. It successfully performs all the basic functions of
a bathroom—whereas at various times the house has been without
heat, hot water, a kitchen, a bedroom, various exterior
walls…there’s just always been something that at least felt
more pressing or essential.
At the same time, my hesitance to make any improvements to the
bathroom has probably been informed by the kind of thinking I
described at the beginning of this post: do it right or don’t do
it at all. Whether or not the bathroom would eventually need a full
renovation has never really been up for debate, so I have
essentially been waiting for that full renovation and avoiding
anything less. And I really do mean avoiding—I mean, LOOK at
those walls. Don’t you want to just yank those peeling parts
off?? Can you imagine the prolonged exercise in self-control
of leaving it alone? Because I know myself well enough to know
this: once I start, I will be powerless to stop. And then I have
opened another can of worms when I’m already juggling the dozen
cans of worms open in front of me. A small gesture like scraping
the walls or re-caulking the tub will inevitably spiral, and it’s
a dangerous and slippery slope into total chaos from there. And so:
The problem, of course, with putting this stuff off “until the
big renovation” is finally, to me at least, evident: that big
renovation is a long way off. Years, not months. And I just cannot
anymore. The bathroom is gross and makes me feel bad, and
unfortunately it will not improve on its own no matter how much I
nag it. So I’m going to do…something.
I’m giving myself a week. A week to deal with the floors, the
walls, the shitty plumbing, the lack of storage, the bad lighting,
the formica shower surround…all of it. I am absolutely determined
to keep all walls and ceilings intact—once the plaster goes, then
so does the brick nogging, and then I’m dealing with potential
structural issues (no evidence of this, but…ya know) and
insulation and vapor barriers and cement board and then what the
hell, let’s rip out the tub, and THAT IS NOT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
I’m also giving myself a thousand dollars, by which I mean my
corporate overlords at Lowe’s
have agreed to provide exactly this sum in materials and I will
gladly take it and very likely spend it all. It sounds like a lot
of money but I’m sure it’ll go fast.
Just as I haven’t expended significant effort on fixing up the
bathroom, I have not allowed myself to put significant thought into
what I would do with it if I could! So…I dunno. Wish me luck?
Tell me what to do? My current plan is no plan, so…tell me your
And then your secrets.
Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
I Have Got to Do Something About This Bathroom.