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Inspired by the rest of the Shingle-style house, this new bathroom by Greene & Proppe Design features beadboard wainscot and fine fittings. Pendant frieze by Bradbury & Bradbury. Photo by Christopher Lark.

Bathrooms With Character

by Patricia Poore on March 5, 2012

in Kitchens & Bathrooms

ABOVE: Inspired by the rest of the Shingle-style house, this new bathroom by Greene & Proppe Design features beadboard wainscot and fine fittings. Pendant frieze by Bradbury & Bradbury. Photo by Christopher Lark.

Today’s Arts & Crafts Revival has brought us bathrooms that are “sanitary white” and also bathrooms with more warmth and decoration. Bath styles from the first third of the 20th century vary considerably: think of transitional Victorian built-ins, then white tile, and finally the intensely colored fixtures of the Art Deco period. So much choice!

Many of today’s bathrooms (including those in new houses) have a retro look, with clawfoot tub, gutsy medicine cabinet built into the woodwork, and acres of white subway tile. What’s odd is that this model is not always appropriate in renovation—even though century-old bathrooms inspired the look. The look is consistent, while old houses are individual, with different styles and quirks.

This Chicago bath has a historical feel done up in a dark wood wainscot and checkerboard floor. Art and mirror hang from a picture molding, a nice detail. Greene & Proppe Design. Photo by Christopher Lark.

This Chicago bath has a historical feel done up in a dark wood wainscot and checkerboard floor. Art and mirror hang from a picture molding, a nice detail. Greene & Proppe Design. Photo by Christopher Lark.

All this occurred to me as I was shown recent projects by the Chicago architecture firm of Greene & Proppe Design. Their bathroom designs—and every one is different— have a furnished quality. Each reflects the house it’s in, because the house itself provided style cues. That’s true in a tiny jewel-box of a powder room, and also in a more expansive revival bathroom in an addition.

A clawfoot tub and multi-part wall treatment over a wood wainscot are suitable for the 1901 transitional house. Hex-tile floor and roller shade with lace curtain complete the coherent look. Photo by William Wright.

A clawfoot tub and multi-part wall treatment over a wood wainscot are suitable for the 1901 transitional house. Hex-tile floor and roller shade with lace curtain complete the coherent look. Photo by William Wright.

In all the bathrooms shown here, character is more important than fidelity to one period. Bathrooms are remodeled and updated regularly, so it’s not unusual to find modern fixtures with old floor tile. Other reasons for change come into play. When a servants’ bath, for example, is remade as a powder room for guests, it will of course end up fancier than the original. Suitable bathrooms are most often of reasonable size. They remain in their original location, or are fitted into a traditional floor plan.

A graphic tile floor, beadboard, and period moldings make up a muscular treatment in a 1910 Prairie Style house—then there’s the surprise of the antique mirror. Greene & Proppe Design. Photo by Christopher Lark.

A graphic tile floor, beadboard, and period moldings make up a muscular treatment in a 1910 Prairie Style house—then there’s the surprise of the antique mirror. Greene & Proppe Design. Photo by Christopher Lark.

Design guidelines for an appropriate bathroom start with a simple layout of three fixtures, traditional materials like wood and tile, and a mix of freestanding and built-in furniture. Include salvage or an antique to keep the room from looking all-new. Some old-house bathrooms are entirely utilitarian; others pick up colors and style from surrounding rooms. Ignore trends, and let the house guide you.

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