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Restoring Freshwater Cottage IX

Peeling Back The Layers: To Remodel, Renovate, or Restore

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When last we left our emasculated hero, he was seated with a scrub-bucket and worsh-rag–like a sad, yinzer Cinderella–on the floor of Freshwater’s insidious bathroom-from-heck […tryin’ to keep this blog PG, folks].  Straightening his babushka scarf with resolve, Justin washed away the shame from its walls whilst plotting swift and uncompromising revenge.

Layers. So Many Layers.

By my estimation, Freshwater’s bathroom had been remodeled about two or three times since 1911.

It’s par for the course, really. Bathrooms and kitchens are the first things to be “updated” when new trends come along. So I expected nothing less.

On that night in late 2017, as I sat thinking about completely gutting the bathroom, I laughed. I had come to the conclusion that this horrid room was like an onion. It had many, many layers. It smelled weird. It made me cry.

But I was reminded that even the most pungent, off-putting onions can be transformed into something beautiful–especially when combined with some butter, a few pierogies, and a little skill.

[Speaking of pierogies… I’m aware that I put myself in mortal peril by publicly allying myself with only one purveyor of church basement pierogies, but I get mine from St. George Ukrainian in Brighton Heights. Ungh! Each delicate dumpling is so deftly crafted by the nimble, skilled hands of little, old church ladies. They’re just… the epitome of perfection. Of course, if you wish to challenge my preference in pierogi provisioner, I welcome the chance to try yours. You all know where I live. I’ll be waiting…]

Little did I realize at the time that this hellscape was in my not-so-distant my future.

But back to the bathroom…

Peeling back all of those layers and transforming this room into something palatable was going to be a massive undertaking.

Oh, sure. I had refinished floors, repaired trim, and fixed plaster. I had even tackled minor plumbing issues and fiddled with century-old electrical work.

But gutting an entire room and starting from scratch? I winced at the idea. But it had to be done.

So, I had to make my first decision. Was I going to remodel, renovate, or restore?

To remodel, renovate, or restore? That is the question.

Sometimes, these three words get thrown around willy-nilly and used interchangeably. [I’m lookin’ at you, HGTV.] But, in practice, they all mean very different things.

    1. Remodel | verb | to alter the structure of : REMAKE
    2. Renovate | verb | to restore to life, vigor, or activity : REVIVE
    3. Restore | verb | to bring back to or put back into a former or original state : RENEW

[Oh, c’mon, Justin. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Same difference. Who cares? They’re just words.]

Well, not really. When it comes to dealing with the treatment of an old house, each of those words implies a different type and level of intervention.

So, which path did I choose?

Well, I knew that I didn’t want to remodel. [Or, “remuddle” as we preservationists call it.]

For me, as a historian, the concept of “remodeling” is tainted with this idea of putting my personal wants and desires above what the house actually needs. It’s like picking an ultra-contemporary design out of the pages of DWELL magazine–just because it’s pretty and trendy–and shoe-horning it into a century-old house. [Might have to move a wall, or brick up that window, but gosh darn it, I’m getting my walk-in, glass-enclosed, 47-jet shower that will absolutely be out-of-style in five years!]

Remember when we talked about being a curator of the house instead of its owner?

I believe that whatever changes I make should necessarily complement the house. I also believe that those changes should be of sufficient quality and craftsmanship to last another hundred years. So, for me, remodeling was out, out, out.

What about renovating?

Renovating was certainly an option. [And it would have been the more cost-effective option…] With a renovation, I’d be “renewing” the bathroom. I’d keep most of the existing fixtures, clean everything up, and make it all work. Maybe some new cabinetry. Perhaps a more era-appropriate sink. Voila!

But no, friends. The title of this series is Restoring Freshwater Cottage, not Renovating Freshwater Cottage.

If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I would take every ounce of know-how and give this house the bathroom it deserved. I would restore the bathroom.

[A note for all you hardcore preservationists out there: absolutely nothing of Freshwater’s original bathroom survived. The only existing documentation was an oral history from the Connors family and a written description from the WPA survey… which amounted to Bathroom: Plain. How helpful! That being said, my goal was to select the most appropriate and complementary era for a 1911 house and restore the bathroom to that period.]

The Roaring ’20s

Ultimately, I decided that circa 1920 was the most appropriate date for the bathroom restoration. [Gasp! Freshwater was built in 1911, not 1920. You’re falsifying history, Justin! Shame! Shame!]

Indeed! But I have a justification. Before all of you preservation purists burn me at the stake, hear me out.

Yes, I believe in restoring Freshwater to its original condition–or as close an approximation as possible. But I also believe that a house (no matter how old) must function for the people who live in it.

These concepts are not mutually exclusive. You can have your cake and eat it, too.

Look. Freshwater might be my pride and joy, but it isn’t a museum. It’s a house. Christopher and I live in it. And it has to function as a real house should. And that’s especially true of the bathroom.

So why did I choose circa 1920?

Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company, Modern Bath Room–Design P90, 1912.

Well, first, I could actually find working (or at least kind-of-working) bathroom fixtures from the 1920s. That’s pretty important. But on a historical note, advancements in sanitation during the 1910s and 1920s heavily influenced how we use our bathrooms today.

Think: showers instead of baths

Think: white ceramic tile

Think: smooth porcelain fixtures

Think: ease of cleaning

Those are all products of the early twentieth century–and specifically became popular in the residential setting during the 1910s and 1920s.

And truthfully, any bathroom restoration was going to be heavily based on educated guessing. But because of all those advancements in sanitation, we have access to really good documentation from that period. So it seemed to be the most appropriate and practical era to emulate.

But now came the hard part… actually doing it.

It was time to find those fixtures! And worst of all, it was time to start peeling back those awful, awful layers.

NEXT WEEK: A Treasure Hunt: To Chicago for a Sink! To New York for a Toilet! 

If you haven’t been following the series Restoring Freshwater Cottage by Justin Greenawalt, please join in anywhere along the way, or start here.

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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 REALTORS® Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

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