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Restoring Freshwater Cottage VIII

The Great Bathroom War

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Back to the Future!

Alright, everyone. Get in the Delorean and fire-up that Flux Capacitor. We’re going back in time to March 2015.

Let me tell you something. March 2015 was a month.

You know what I’m talking about. It was one of those months that seems to last for years… decades, even. It was the kind of month that makes you question ever becoming an adult [because honey, it’s overrated]. It was such a ridiculous month that–I swear to you–Alanis Morissette could have written a song about it.

In short, March 2015 was challenging.

Why? Because March 2015 was the month when everythingย changed.

Until we bought Freshwater, Christopher and I hadn’t lived together. We’d been a couple for three years, but I had my apartment in Pittsburgh and he had his house in Youngstown. We spent weekends together, but beyond that, he had his life and I had mine.

But now, we had a house… together.

We were going to be living… together.

[Cue ominous background music.]

Me and Christopher. So happy. So clueless.

No, seriously. It wasn’t that terrible.

But change is hard. It’s really, really hard. Moving in with your significant-other can be great. Moving in with all of your significant-other’s stuff can be… er… not so great. And introducing your respective menagerie of cats to one another can be downright hellish.

Plus, at the time, I had a fierce un-diagnosed, un-treated, job-related anxiety disorder that made things just… so much more fun.

[Time out. In all seriousness, I tell you about my struggle with anxiety because I believe in being transparent and open about mental health issues. If you’re struggling with your mental health, consider this your permission to be happy. You deserve to be happy.]

But, Christopher and I survived combining households. We did it. Together.

And then the house decided to throw us a curve ball…

Water, water everywhere…

We were sitting in the living room one evening, trying to get our cats to be friends, when Christopher decided that he was going to go upstairs to run a bath.

As I lectured our cats on the benefits of camaraderie, I noted the sound of running water.ย  It was followed by the telltale sloshing that accompanies a nice, relaxing soak in the tub.

About five minutes later, I heard it. Drip… drip… drip drip… drip drip drip… flooooosh…

My head snapped toward the dining room. A torrent of soapy water gushed from one of the ceiling’s box beams.

I ran up the stairs and flung open the bathroom door. Christopher screamed with all the intensity of a dainty lady having been caught in her nightie. I plunged my hand into the tub and released the stopper.

“Get out! Get out right now!” I yelled breathlessly. “Dining room. Water. Water everywhere…”

Confused, wet, and indecent, Christopher did as I instructed.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

It wasn’t long after the Great Flood of March 2015 that I placed the bathroom on my extraordinarily long to-do list.

The bathroom before we bought Freshwater.

Oh, sure. On the whole, the bathroom was serviceable. Some might have even considered it nice. And compared to what it looked like before we bought the house… well… it was downright palatial!

But even the prettiest bathrooms can hide the deepest, darkest secrets.

Christopher discovered that the cause of the Great Flood wasn’t something that was immediately fixable. The bathtub’s overflow drain had completely rusted-out and was being held together with caulk.

“Okay,” I told myself. “A new bathtub. That’s not so bad, I guess. Could be worse. Showers only from now on…”

The bathroom we inherited, with a few of our personal touches. Nice, just like lipstick on a pig…

Then, I noticed the paint around the bathtub starting to bubble. I poked and prodded and discovered that the previous owner had used regular drywall for the shower and tub enclosure.


“Okay,” I told myself. “Budget for some cement board. Still, not so bad. I can handle that.”

Oh, no. No no no. How incredibly naive I was.

I was about to encounter one of the realities of owning an old house.

Little did I realize, the plumbing to the bathtub had been (poorly) reconfigured in the 1950s. And it was a veritable time-bomb, just waiting… waiting…

Rub-a-Dub-Dub. Let’s Get Rid of This Tub.

On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning in November 2017, I was getting ready for work when the bathtub stopped draining. I sloshed around in the water pooling at my feet and made a mental note that I’d need to remedy the situation that evening. On my way home from work, I stopped at Home Depot and purchased a plumbing snake.

“I’m adulting!” I told myself.

Pleased with my purchase, I got in my car and drove home–completely oblivious to the nightmare that awaited me.

When I arrived, I discovered that none of the water in the bathtub had drained.

“It’s been nearly ten hours!” I said incredulously. “But that’s okay. I have my trusty plumbing snake. I’m an adult. I can handle this.”

[Spoiler alert: I couldn’t handle this.]

Down the snake went. Five feet. Ten feet. Twenty feet. Thirty feet. By this point, I was certain that I was snaking the main sewer. And still nothing. Absolutely nothing. The water persisted. I retracted the snake and set it aside. My mind swirled.

I looked away from the tub and saw my toilet plunger.

“I wonder…” I said to myself, as I grabbed the plunger and placed it over the bathtub drain. [I had once successfully used a plunger to open a clogged sink drain in my New York apartment. Surely, this wouldn’t be any different.]

I gave one, forceful push.

Bursting forth from the drain was the most insidious, putrid, black filth I have ever seen. The drain gurgled and spewed an unconscionable amount of fetid sludge. The miasma of over 100 years of sewer rot filled the air and stung my nostrils.

Never before in my life had I felt further removed from the warm, nurturing light of God.

My reaction was a reflex. I plunged again. It was as if I was trying to push the repulsive slime back from whence it came.

Mid-plunge, on the other side of the bathroom, the sink erupted with a geyser of black ooze, splattering on the opposite wall.

My eyes went wide with shock. I sat down on the bathroom floor, defeated and covered in unspeakable filth. Upon arriving home from work, that is where Christopher found me. He stood in the doorway and surveyed the bathroom–undoubtedly trying to understand what the hell had happened.

I turned and looked up at him with tears in my eyes.

“I… I need a real man,” I blubbered. “Please. Help me.”

And he did. Wielding a wet-dry vac, he strode into the bathroom and saved the day. Despite my protestation against using suction on century-old plumbing, he managed to free the offending clog and drain all of the black bile in less than a minute. Christopher made everything better… as he usually does.

But, you see, that bathroom had damaged my pride. And I refused to let it win. Later that evening, as I washed the foul, malodorous sin from its walls, I plotted my revenge.

I wasn’t just going to get rid of the tub. Oh, no. I was going to gut that bathroom down to the studs.

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Justin Greenawalt

Originally from Connellsville, Pennsylvania, Justin relocated to Pittsburgh in 2004. In 2008, he moved to New York City to pursue his M.S. in Historic Preservation. After completing his studies, the allure of the Steel City brought him back. In 2015, Justin discovered Bellevue and decided to call it home, along with his partner Christopher and their menagerie of cats and chickens. Professionally, Justin is an Architectural Historian in the Cultural Resources Department of Michael Baker International, Inc. He is also a Licensed Real Estate Professional with the Sewickley Office of Howard Hanna. Justin also serves as a Director of Preservation Pittsburgh, the President of the East Liberty Valley Historical Society, and a Real Estate Educator with the REALTORSยฎ Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

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