Remodeling an Older Home: Help Clients Maintain a Historic Bathroom

Buying a historic house is a rewarding life change for homeowners who take on the challenge. When remodeling the home, however, it’s important to strike the right balance between new and old elements.

By knowing what to preserve and what to update, homeowners can be sure that they're keeping all the old-world charm of the house. Whether transforming an attic into a bath or replacing some copper fixtures, here’s how to maintain the integrity of a beautiful historic home.

Planning a Historic Remodel

When contractors and homeowners work together to update a historic home, everyone should be on the same page about ideas and expectations. Dave Dunlap, principal at Consolidated Design & Construction Group, Inc., says that detailed drawings and written specifications help eliminate uncertainties in the renovation. Plans eliminate misunderstandings and ensure that a home’s historic elements get preserved.

Another way homeowners can maintain communication with contractors is to create a list of favorite things about the house. Cooper Design Builders says that this allows the contractors to update old features with new ones that don’t lose the home’s appeal. It also helps contractors with strategic decisions about which vintage elements should stay, and which should be replaced.

Remodeling with Integrity

Understanding a home’s architectural history can ensure an honorable bathroom revival.It can also guide the homeowner towards a renovation that makes sense for their lifestyle.

Old House Online showcases multiple renovation styles for updating a Victorian home. One approach is a museum-quality purist style, using research and on-site discovery to bring a home back to its original state. In comparison, a sympathetic refresh honors the original elements of a home while incorporating renovations and additions. This approach allows room for personal decorating and modern electronics to be added.

Tuning into history is also helpful when expanding a house with new additions. Since there isn’t an existing bathroom space to work from, knowing what bathrooms looked like during that period can ensure that the spaces stay both functional and historically accurate. Mady Dahlstrom at Porch shows a bathroom in a Colonial featuring plenty of marble along with a built-in bathtub and double vanities. While these are modern elements, white crown molding used to cap the walls is a nod to the home’s Colonial past.

Once you understand which style the homeowner is trying to achieve and how it might be accomplished, it’s easier to guide them towards more informed decisions about the remodel.

Which Fixtures to Preserve

When deciding which elements to preserve, it might help homeowners to look at quirks as opportunities, rather than detriments.

For inspiration, refer to this elegant colonial remodel featured by Curbed writer Robert Khederian. In this home, the designer wanted to add a new bathroom to the home, which required the addition of a wall. That wall create an odd nook in the bedroom next to it. The architect took advantage of this additional space, building a bed with under-bed drawers for storage into the niche.

For another historic home remodel example, consider this interview conducted by lifestyle editor Diana Bruk at House Beautiful. Here, the homeowners explain that they made a point to preserve an odd little window in the shower because they enjoyed its uniqueness. This functional, double hung window was then framed with glass tile to emphasize its beauty. Seeing the home’s creative opportunities is the best way to add new quirks that make the home even more unique.

Old House senior editor Mary Ellen Polson adds that preserving original patterned tiles is one of the best ways to maintain a home’s vintage look. If there are just a few tiles cracked, stained or chipped, consider restoring them with tiles of similar size and color. Following the pattern and grout lines can ensure the tiles are preserved in their natural state without standing out in an unsightly way.

When to Replace Elements

If it’s necessary to replace elements that are no longer functioning well, there are a few ways to approach these changes in a mindful way.

For example, interior designer Abigail Hayden shows how she preserved the integrity of a bathroom in a historic Colonial home. When the original bronze faucet in the bathroom fell apart due to age, she sought out similar fixtures that would match. While another antique bronze faucet wasn’t an option, Hayden chose brass fixtures similar in finish, which supported the original look and style.

It’s also a good idea to keep in mind how new bathroom elements will guide and inform one another. If one element is replaced, every other feature should be updated to match — with no room for shortcuts. According to residential contractor Deborah Burnett, a historic bathroom remodel is an all-or-nothing undertaking. She says that this is largely due to the fact that the role of bathrooms has shifted. “Today the emphasis is on luxury and relaxation and to achieve that you'll have to make a dramatic and drastic overhaul,” she explains.

Balanced Elements

Many homeowners struggle to create balance when remodeling a bathroom in an older home. For example, opting for vintage fixtures that match an older home may not be practical, although they’d look charming. Meanwhile, opting for something that’s too modern can disrupt a home’s historic integrity.

To strike the right balance, real estate editor Devon Thorsby offers a few suggestions. First, she says that bathrooms are particularly important to design for comfort, since they’re used so often. This means that a homeowner’s needs should come first, before thoughts of design and style. Secondly, Thorsby says that the bathroom is important for ensuring an investment on a home. This means that it’s a good idea to design a neutral space that will appeal to multiple people, including potential future buyers.

To see what a neutral bathroom design might look like, consider these ideas from historic homes in Atlanta. In the first bathroom on this list by Copper Sky Renovations, soft gray and champagne tiles keep things looking light and timeless. A freestanding tub is a modern take on the old clawfoot tub design and a preserved historic window add a history note to the space.

Similarly, Builders Surplus features a Victorian home with a number of white elements, including shower tile, floor tile, an antique pedestal sink and ornate Victorian-inspired mirror. They suggest adding beadboard to the walls instead of tile, as it provides a timeless look that evokes of days gone past.

Reimagine Rooms

Maintaining the historic integrity of a home doesn’t always mean that rooms need to retain their original function. This is especially true for Victorian or Colonial homes, which often have large, sparse attics that are largely unused. Author Jackie Craven says that attics can be transformed into a luxury bathrooms, since they don’t have to be on the ground floor. Depending on the unique layout of the home, other rooms may make great second or third bathroom with minimal construction required.

Another idea is to take elements from one room in a home and reinterpret them elsewhere. Such a reimagination was successfully executed in a Spanish Colonial remodel by architect Thomas J. Pearson. In this instance, a pocket door from a different area of the home was refurbished and moved to the master bathroom entryway. Repurposing existing elements gives the home a fresh look without straying too far from its origins.

Images by: Skeeze, nomadsoul1/©123RF Stock Photo, Don White