The new, old water closet

At this time of these images, there were still a few details to complete (we were awaiting a sink faucet which was on backorder), but the bath is complete and as close to Wright’s vision as we could make it.

The 68″ x 72″ space was the weak spot in the house when we bought it, and we had plans to quickly make it right.

Here it was before the work:

The demolition phase confirmed what we suspected: years of steam and overflows had done damage, and the damage was covered up. We learned that the room was originally painted plaster and trim in yellows and oranges, unlike a bath in one of the Burnham model F duplexes, – which features varnished trim. However, we’re not convinced that paint was in Wright’s plans. Since we didn’t see evidence of a clawfoot, we wonder if the builder veered from the drawings and went right to a built-in tub, and thought that paint would survive moisture. We do know that sometime in the 50’s a tub was replaced, some plaster was removed to tile for a shower, and the original maple floor which had stained and warped was covered in linoleum. Subsequent layers of tile, flooring and paint covered subsequent damage. The space seemed to close in on you and the squishy floor was an inch too high.

IMG_3277 copyWe demoed to the studs where necessary and to the Byrkit Lath where we could, and then started fresh. We stabilized the floor starting at the joists and built a new sub-floor. We replaced all the old plumbing. We ran circuits, outlets and added a fan, new fixtures, and in-floor radiant heat to replace a 1950’s radiator. With cues from B1 and other parts of our house, we elected to return to plaster all around, a clawfoot tub, and hand-rubbed shellac finishes on the all birch trim. We recovered and reclaimed birch woodwork and the door by refinishing, and then milled and finished over 1500 new linear feet of rail and decorative trim to replace what was missing. The new floor is tile, but in a wood finish pattern. This allows for the radiant heat and won’t warp or stain the first time someone splashes in the tub.

We were lucky to have found Peter Halper of Passerine Home Remodeling to help. Peter’s talents are both broad and deep: he can plumb, wire, tile and plaster. More importantly, he was willing to work with us as we uncovered clues, made mistakes, shifted our thinking, and added our own time and effort to remain within budget and on time. His true specialty is in listening, working very hard, and kindly collaborating.

And finally, a note on the door. The original plans show that it was hung to open in and into the knees of a toilet sitter, making for a much smaller, already small space. We had a hard time believing that Wright meant to do this, but, alas, other homes, including the Usonian Gordon Home in Oregon, share the painful inconvenience. We decided to break with the architect on this, while preserving the views he wanted in the rest of the house. Now the door still turns in, but into a wall, not into someone’s knees.

Here is the after:

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Regardless of its architectural pedigree (the good), a one-hundred-year-old house has its kinks (the bad), and the Elizabeth Murphy House is no different. We knew coming in that there would be issues with systems: electrical, heating and plumbing. Yes, the plumbing  (the ugly).

It is said that the bathroom was a Frank Lloyd Wright afterthought. Our 6×6’ water closet (the only one in the house) supports that. The plans (above) show a door opening into a sitter’s knees.

And here it is in its present glory, resplendent with fixtures from the 70s, 80s and 90s, squishy linoleum, and a mix of ceramic and plastic tile painted with latex by brush.


We knew we’d be facing a complete tear out. And with that, come many decisions. Here are a few we’ve made so far.

  • We’re using this opportunity to improve whole-house systems. For example, we’re replacing 50-year old galvanized supply pipes with copper throughout the house.
  • We’re repairing damage from years of leaks with new framing and flooring.
  • The renewed bathroom will honor the original plan in layout and trim.
  • We toyed with the idea of a walk-in shower, but have decided on a period clawfoot tub.
  • We may add a laundry chute.

So we’re all-in: down-shifting our lives into smaller spaces with room for fewer things, and Frank is guiding us. We promise to post images a something resembling a 1917 water closet with a nod to 2017 usefulness,  6-8 weeks from now.

Stay tuned.