At HomeBellevueHistoryLife in NoBoPreservationRemodelingRestoring Freshwater Cottage

Restoring Freshwater Cottage X

A Treasure Hunt!

Read our positioning on Black Lives Matter

Chicago, Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town

Remember a few posts ago when I said that I didn’t really like to travel? Well, I guess I should amend that statement. If our destination is somewhere in the Rust Belt, I usually won’t protest.

Buffalo? Grand! Cleveland? Beautiful! New York? Let’s go! Philadelphia? Um…maybe!

Don’t be deceived by our smiles, Southwest charged extra for those bags under my eyes.

But take me to a sunny, sandy beach with salty sea breezes and beautiful people? Yeah, no thanks. [I’m from Pittsburgh. Even our sunniest days are overcast. Put me on a beach without SPF 100+ sunscreen and I’m basically a goner… so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, I’m fried.]

But I do get the itch to travel sometimes. And I do love me some Chicago.

One time, I found $40 round-trip airfare for a red-eye flight to Chicago. I mean, I’d have been stupid to not jump on that opportunity, right?! So, Christopher and I had breakfast in Chicago that day (and were subsequently too exhausted to do much of anything else).

[I had also just started an extreme, medically-monitored weight loss program called OptiFast where I was eating  just about 800 calories a day. So, I was both tired and chronically hangry.]

In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea. But, memories…

When it came time to actually source the tile and fixtures for our bathroom restoration, I knew Chicago was going to be on our list of destinations. The tile company that I wanted to use was based in Oak Park.  And as far as salvaged fixtures were concerned, we had pretty much exhausted all options within a three-hour drive of Pittsburgh. Plus, it seemed that the prices for architectural salvage in Chicago were actually pretty reasonable. If we got lucky, we could probably score a few good pieces without breaking the bank. Win-win.

So, last October, we hit the road. And we took my mom, too!

[We routinely kidnap my darling mother and force her to accompany us on trips. She’s a great travel buddy. And it gives both she and Christopher a chance to air their grievances about living with me!]

Miles and Miles for Tiles!

For me, selecting the right tile for this bathroom restoration wasn’t just key, it was everything. Without the right tile, I knew that the style and quality of fixtures ultimately wouldn’t matter. They’d just never look right.

I knew exactly what I wanted, too. But there was a problem. The very specific type of tile that I wanted hadn’t been manufactured in over a century. Or at least that’s what I thought.

By now, you’ve probably read that I lived in New York City during my graduate school days. My little plot of Manhattan was located just east of Broadway in Washington Heights.

Everyday, I’d walk down to the 157th Street station (or up to 168th Street) and take the 1 Train to campus. As I waited for the train, I would admire the remarkable tile that lined the station walls.

If you’ve ever taken the subway in NYC, you’ve likely seen this tile. It appears in the old Interborough Rapid Transit stations (primarily on the 1, 2, and 3 lines).  Built in 1904, these stations were designed by the architectural firm of Heins & LaFarge.

And the tile? These stations aren’t lined with just any subway tile. No, no, no. The tile I’m talking about is white, glassy, and has the most remarkable iridescent quality. As you walk by, it refracts light. And if you pay close attention, you’ll see the visible spectrum dance across the surface. Sublime.

That was the tile that I wanted for my bathroom! But… as it turns out, the process that created that stunningly iridescent tile was both highly carcinogenic and bad for the environment. [Whomp, whomp.] So, I needed to find a close approximation. And as you might have guessed, I wasn’t going to find it at Home Depot or Lowes.

Anxiety-induced insomnia to the rescue!

I have a pretty consistent nightly routine. At around 10:30PM, I grab the closest, fluffiest, most unwilling cat and I head upstairs to bed. I plug in my phone to charge, crack a window, and snuggle-up with the my favorite blanket. Sufficiently prepared for a restful night’s sleep, my head hits the pillow… and then my brain kicks into overdrive, revisiting every single embarrassing thing I’ve ever done or said.

What was this particular night’s feature film? I think it was that time I got detention in sixth grade for–get this–barfing during detention. Double-whammy!


At around 1:00AM, I gave up on trying to sleep. I pulled out my phone and started searching for my elusive bathroom tile.

Deep, deep, deep in the recesses of the internet [you know, somewhere between YouTube compilations of old Vines and listicles about cheese], I stumbled across Heritage Tile. Having actually replicated historic tile for the New York City transit system, I instantly knew this was the company I wanted. I was sold.

Who cares? What’s the difference?

Left to Right: Modern Home Depot Tile; Historic Subway Tile; Heritage Subway Ceramics Tile.

Remember what we said about details? Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail. Those subtle differences matter in the grand scheme of things.

Take a look at these tiles. The one on the left is a typical, modern tile. In the middle is the real-deal: a century-old subway tile. The one on the right is a new tile, made to historic specification by Heritage Tile.

So what’s the difference? First, notice the glazing? The modern tile doesn’t reflect light like the other two. Second, look closely at the modern tile. It doesn’t have the crazing (that crackled look) that the other two tiles have.  In the absence of the iridescent glaze, the crazing refracts light, giving the tile that shimmering quality I wanted.  Third, the modern tile has a thickness of about 1/4-inch. The other two tiles have a thickness of 3/8-inch, making them much more weighty, substantial, and durable.

For me, selecting Heritage Tile was a no-brainer. And actually visiting the showroom was sheer perfection.

That Sinking Feeling…

Christopher and I left Heritage Tile a whole lot poorer, but a little happier.  We were one step closer to realizing this dream of a restored bathroom.

But now we needed a sink. We didn’t really know what we were looking for… just that we’d know it when we found it.

The following day, Christopher and I commenced our treasure hunt after we bid adieu to my mother [who had decided that all she wanted to do in Chicago was see the new Joker movie…].

Christopher and I visited ReUse Depot and ReBuilding Exchange, but nothing caught our fancy. It wasn’t until we landed at Urban Remains that we hit pay dirt.

A most remarkable sink.

I hadn’t wandered around for more than five minutes before I saw it–nestled away under a table. It was fate. It was as if the skies had opened and a heavenly light shone down upon it. Had I looked away for only a second, I’m sure I would have missed it.

There, sitting before me, was the most incredible sink that had ever sink-ed.

Beautifully carved Cararra marble, an intact vitreous china bowl, a soap dish, a nickle-plated waste, and a mid-1930s Standard Sanitary Mfg. Co. Re-Nu faucet. It had been recently removed from a house on Chicago’s Gold Coast.

The cost? A gentleman never divulges the specifics of monetary matters, but I will say this: it was cheaper than buying a new sink and vanity. And for the level of quality and craftsmanship? Fuhgeddaboudit.

There was only one problem. The sink had no legs.

“Pish-posh,” I told myself, as I gave Christopher a hard side-eye to squelch any debate. This was a minor detail. This rare delight was coming home with us. (And thank goodness HABITAT Hardware back in good ol’ Pittsburgh had my butt covered on finding a company that could make era-appropriate sink legs.)

With that, we loaded our treasure into the car and began the long trek home.

Oh… and we didn’t forget my mom. She liked the movie. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Show More

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.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button