June 12, 2009

Pouring Money Down the Drain

When we purchased our house, the bathrooms were not high on our list of priorities. Compared to the facilities in our small apartments in New York City, they seemed positively spacious, and frankly, our attention was more focused on the 18th century elements of the house.

Once we actually moved into the house, however, it quickly became clear the the bathrooms would eventually need some attention. The master bath was located in a small shed-like addition located off the side of the house. It was small by modern standards, with a sink, toilet and combination tub/shower. There was a nicely sized linen closet, but the the decor featured an early-1980s low-end hardware store motif, including a large mirror surrounded by dressing-room style lights that screamed "A Chorus Line!". The real challenge, however, was the room's height. The doorway from our dressing room into the bathroom was very low, and the top corner of the door was crossed by a cased-in drain pipe from the second floor. Not cracking one's skull when maneuvering the single step down into the bathroom was a challenge. The low height in the bathroom had led to a shower head placement that was fine for Jenny, but that resulted in me being treated to a stream of water chest high. Not good for those if us who are not vertically challenged.

The second floor contained what I assume was the first plumbed bathroom added to the house. This small room was located on the western side of the house, tucked under the slope of the saltbox roofline. The condition when we moved in was appalling. Everything in the room had been painted over in a thick, sludgy brown paint that I can only assume was purchased as surplus from the military or some institution. There was nothing attractive about it, yet it covered the walls, ceiling, trim and exposed pipes. Even worse, the paint on the sloped ceiling had been applied over several alternating layers of paint and wallpaper. By the time we moved in, these strata of decoration were flaking and peeling all over the room. To us, it looked like one of the dark and disturbing settings for the movie "7". There were, however, a few interesting features, including an old, white pedestal sink, and a very short cast iron bathtub tucked back under the eaves of the room. One wall of the room also featured what looked like original 18th century horizontal paneling. The tongue-and-groove board had separated over the years, leaving large gaps that had been badly filled with a large amount of wood filler over the years, and there were just faint indications of the bead detail that ran down the edge of each board buried underneath 200+ years of paint.

With too many other items requiring immediate attention when we moved in in 2001, the bathrooms were left pretty much alone for some time. We did, have our contractor reroute the death pipe that crossed the doorway downstairs. Given the low ceiling and doorway height throughout the house, it did not take me long to intuitively move around the house cautiously and with a bit of a stoop. Having literally laid myself out on the floor several times with blows to the head, it became a matter of self-preservation. The bathroom door pipe, however, was too much. There was no way I was not going to severely injure myself in the middle of the night at some point if it was left in place. Happily, the plumbers were able to raise it up just enough to clear the doorway.

On the second floor, we gutted the decaying ceiling as part of the major ceiling and wall renovation that took place when we first moved in. This made the room much less creepy, but it was still not the most welcoming facility for our guests, who were the only people who really ever had to use that bathroom, anyway. Around 2004, I did begin to start stripping the brown paint off the paneling in the room. This took place in fits and spurts, whenever I had some free time and felt the need to make progress on something.

Also around 2004, we begin to see signs that all was not right in the master bathroom. The floor tile in the room had cracks in various places even when we moved in. Over the next two to three years, these cracks got worse, and the grout began to fail in several places resulting in loose tiles that would pop out of place. Having caulked the edge of the tub where it met the wall when we moved in, I eventually noticed something disturbing. The gap kept opening up more and more. I re-caulked, only to watch it open again. The problem was that the movement between tub and wall was vertical, not horizontal. So, either our house had hit a growth spurt, or the tub was sinking. Not good. Our worst fears were confirmed when I entered the bathroom one day and saw that a tile in the corner was missing. What was left in its place was a black hole. With a little help from a flashlight, it quickly became obvious that the floor in this corer was basically non-existent, rotted away by years and years of water damage (I forgot to mention that when we moved in, the space between the tub and walls had not been caulked). Obviously, the whole thing was going to need to be torn up and replaced.

From here, the real fun began. We knew that we wanted to re-do the entire bathroom, but that this would be a major project. A visit from Jud, our contractor, revealed that any renovation would be from the ground up - the foundation under the bathroom was in very bad shape, the floors were rotten, and the joists consisted of logs sitting on the ground. So, we began to plan a new bathroom addition. We would tear down the dilapidated structure, and start anew.

At first, we began to plan rebuilding within the existing footprint. Then, we started talking about re-doing the upstairs bathroom at the same time. This would, by the impeccable logic of everyone restoring old homes, save costs (by doubling the work). ??. Next, it occurred to us that by building up, we could add on to the very small second floor bathroom at the same time that we rebuilt the master bath.

Before too long, I had sketched out (below) a plan for a two story addition that would mimic the saltbox roofline of the main house. We would double the footprint of the master bath, giving us room to install both a large tub and a separate shower stall, and we would convert the window in the second floor bath into a door, creating a bathroom suite that would allow us to put in a shower on the second floor, and make the house suitable for guests and kids (one day). Sure, it was a much, much bigger undertaking than we had ever envisaged, but it would dramatically improve the quality of life in the house for us and womever comes after us.

We expected that the entire endeavor would take 6-12 months. Little did we know that it would take that much time just to get approval from the town for the project, and that it would be two full years before the project was completed.

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