Before & (Almost) After: A Quick Basement Bathroom Refresh

Basement Bathroom Remodel

When our house was built in 1917 it was equipped with one bathroom on the second floor. Somewhere along the way – and judging by the Bathking shower I think it was post-WWII – a bathroom was added in the basement. This little bathroom has been great in a functional kind of way when we’ve had houseguests. Or even when it’s just the two of us and nature calls at the same time! Still, this little bathroom could use some refreshing. From the army green wall to the peel and stick floor, it was time to give this bathroom new life.

Updating a Dated Bathroom | This American House

The floor was covered in peel and stick linoleum squares that were applied directly to the concrete. I’m sure it was a great solution when it was put down (so easy! so fast! so cheap!) but there are better options now. Options that I was more than happy to explore.

Dated Basement Bathroom with Kitschy Wallpaper | This American House

I actually quite loved the wallpaper. The Mister and I are both old movie fans and he’s quite a history buff so this newspaper themed wallpaper seemed kind of fitting for us. Plus, what man doesn’t like something to read while he’s urinating? In intervals of one to three minutes I’ve read and memorized every single word on that wall. Perhaps if the wallpaper wasn’t interrupted by a strip of tile, I might have kept it. But as you can see in the photo above the wallpaper is interrupted by rather haphazardly placed tile. Better to pull it all down and start fresh!

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Fortunately, the wallpaper came down in clean strips. If you think I’m nerdy enough to have rolled that used wallpaper up and stash it away for later use, you’re damn right! I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but just like those vines from the garage, I’ll find some use for it.

RENOVATING A BASEMENT BATHROOM | THIS AMERICAN HOUSE

The tile, on the other hand, was not quite as cooperative. As I used the putty knife to pry the tile from the wall, it brought along with it a layer of paper from the drywall. It was messy and I knew that it would require a lot of patching plaster. But it would eventually be worth it. (Also, to be honest, my parents were visiting the weekend that I worked on this and my mom volunteered to patch the wall. Thanks Mom!)

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We scraped, patched, sanded and painted the walls before we put down the flooring. But of course before we did anything, we laid a few of the planks of the new laminate flooring down to see which direction we wanted to place to them. (Also, because I was itching to see how it would look!) As you can see in the photo above, the planks were practically perfectly sized if we installed them vertically with the doorway. That saved us at least four cuts so that’s the direction we chose.

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Normally when laying flooring in a bathroom, you’d remove the toilet instead of working around it. And that was indeed our plan. In fact, we did remove the toilet. And that’s when we finally realized that the toilet in this basement bathroom drains out the back. D’oh! And duh. You can clearly see that the toilet drains out the back versus into a floor drain. And yet I purchased a standard toilet without even thinking about it.

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Realizing that we’d have to special order a new toilet, we decided to clean up and re-install the old toilet. And since we didn’t want to have to change the location of the plumbing in the wall, we couldn’t install the flooring under the toilet lest it raise it too much to match up with the drain in the wall. So that means we had to work around the toilet.

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It took a lot of measuring, some creative cutting and a fair amount of swearing, but we finally got it all installed.

080716-bathroom12While I was at it, I painted the dated brown wood paneling on the outside of the bathroom too. What was once a dark and dreary basement bathroom is now a brighter, happier and cleaner space.

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And of course we didn’t touch the Bathking shower. That is and always will be my favorite thing in the basement. I had also bought a new pedestal sink to the replace the wall mounted sink. After we decided to keep the old toilet, however, the new sink would not fit. So I decided to clean up the old sink and just replace the faucet. In the end, the only thing that’s new in this bathroom is the flooring. Everything else was just scrubbed clean.

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There’s still a bit of work to do to finish the room. When I removed the door the bathroom I realized how much space that freed up. So the plan is to install a barn door on the bathroom. I also need to add towel racks and some other accessories.

Mr. Porter’s Garage: A Frank Lloyd Wright Connection in Decorah, Iowa

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

While showing friends around lovely nearby Decorah late last summer, we happened to pass by the incredible Porter House Museum. This beautiful 19th Century Italianate house is notable for its one-of-a-kind surrounding rock wall, a contribution made to the property by its equally one-of-a-kind owner, Adelbert Field Porter (1879-1968). Mr. Porter, commonly known as “Bert,” was a gentleman explorer, naturalist, and photographer who culled from his vast collection of natural curiosities to create “nature art,” such as his remarkable wall.

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

As wowed as our visitors were by a closer inspection of the many wonders embedded in Bert’s wall, the Mister’s and my eyes and mouths dropped open when we rounded the back of the house and saw Mr. Porter’s garage: a stunning Prairie-style structure. We were further excited to read a placard in front of the house which confirmed the obvious Frank Lloyd Wright influence on the garage’s design. It seems that as a boy, Bert Porter had been a student at the Wright-designed Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin! That school was founded in 1887 and operated by Wright’s aunts, Jennie and Nell. According to information graciously supplied by the Porter House Museum, Bert Porter was an early student there, possibly attending from as early as the school’s first year through about 1895. Years later, it’s highly likely that his time there inspired the design of his garage back home in Decorah.

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

Photo courtesy of the Porter House Museum

It’s unknown exactly when the Porter garage was constructed, but photos that appear to be from the 1920s show Bert and his wife Grace posing in it. However, their cars and landscaping seem to be the desired focus of these snapshots, suggesting they were perhaps taken not to show off a magnificent “new” garage but rather these other sources of pride (although the garage is certainly a scene-stealer). But dating the Porter garage is a tantalizing (if challenging) prospect, given the potential for a connection to be made to our Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Prairie-style house, which was built just 30 miles down the road in 1917. Did Bert Porter and his garage somehow influence/inspire Delbert Meier’s decision to build one of Wright’s American System-Built Homes? Or did the Meier House perhaps provide further impetus for Bert Porter to design his garage the way he did?

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

Photo courtesy of the Porter House Museum

Might Bert Porter and Delbert Meier have in fact known each other? If not, the coincidental connections between the two men are even more remarkable to consider, beyond their mutual affection for the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Bert and Delbert were born just a year and 20 miles apart; both were affluent members of their respective communities. Their wives were also born just a year apart (both women died in 1964; Bert outlived Delbert by nine years). But most eerily, the Porters and the Meiers shared almost identical first names: Adelbert and Grace, and Delbert and Grace!

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

Porter House garage as it looks today

Of course, there may be no connection whatsoever between the Porter garage and the Meier House, but it’s just too tantalizing to ignore. We’ll keep you posted as we further investigate!

Porter House - Decorah, Iowa

Our thanks to Emily Mineart, Consulting Curator/Collections Manager at the Porter House Museum, for her generous assistance in our research.

Use Everything: DIY Dried Vine Wreath

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This house has awakened in me a desire to live more simply and responsibly. I’ve developed a bit of a use everything mentality. It’s partly because, unlike our life in the city, I have extra space here at the house that allows me to hang on to things until I can make use of them. We can barely fit our clothes into the closets in the apartment. I’m certainly not going to waste precious space on old plastic containers and other odds and ends. So whereas back in the city I’d throw a plastic container that once contained feta into the recycling bin, I’m much more likely to hang on to it here at the house. (And, by the way, those feta containers have proven to be very effective vessels for paint and stripper!)

Our first fall here at the house I trimmed some of the vines off the carriage house. I didn’t know what I’d do with those vines but it seemed a shame to throw them on the fire pit. Instead, I placed the vines on a hook in the garage and let them dry. Later that winter I made a small wreath by weaving the dried vines together. That wreath now hangs on the front door of our apartment in the city. Just a little piece of the house that welcomes us back to our city home.

Every time I’ve cut back the vines since then, I’ve saved the pieces on a hook in the garage. I’ve amassed quite a stack of vines at this point. And so on the night before my birthday I sat outside and weaved together a large wreath. I found a metal form from a Christmas wreath that we bought from a roadside stand a few years ago (Look at that – recycling again!) to use a base and then wrapped, wrapped, wrapped until I had a big, ol’ wreath.

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It’s silly, I know. I mean, like the world really needs another wreath, right? I really could have just thrown those old vines on the fire pit and no one would have cared. Except for the joy that I felt in the hour or two that I spent making that wreath! It was literally joy, folks. Joie de vivre! As I sat outside on a starry moonlit night and wrapped those vines around in a circle, I had a giant smile on my face. (OK, maybe the drinks that were sloshing around in me didn’t hurt.) There I was: working with my hands, turning trash into treasure and satisfying my eternal desire to make things prettier. Nothing could me happier!

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I was originally making the wreath to hang on the fence at Christmastime. But we’ve recently had the fence repainted (more on that later!) so the vine wreath would get totally lost. Now I’m thinking the wreath will hang on the fireplace when it’s finally finished. The vines look great against the gray bricks.

Adventures in Stripping: Patience Is a Virtue … And I’ve Never Been Very Virtuous

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I think one of the hardest parts of even the lightest of renovations is sticking it out until the end. It takes patience to see a project from conception to completion. It takes little reminders that it will be done if you just keep chipping away at it. And that even though it may be in a state of semi-completion for a few months, one day it will be finished.

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I’m finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with stripping the fireplace brick. After staring at the half-finished fireplace all winter long, silently cursing myself for not finishing it last summer, I’m excited to have gotten close to the end of the job. We finished the front last year but the sides have remained untouched. It was kind of neat to see the difference between the stripped bricks on the front and the side bricks that were still covered in dark gray paint. It made me really appreciate all the work that it took to strip the front.

I started the right side earlier this spring.The Citristrip is doing a great job at pulling off the old paint. It takes a couple of coats and a liberal amount of elbow grease applied to a steel brush, but it the paint does come off. I’ve developed a system with plastic bags and painters tape that make cleanup a little easier. That was important because I was able to work on a few rows of bricks at time. Well, I finally wrapped up the right side a couple of weeks ago. And over this past week I’ve managed to get most of the left side stripped as well.

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There are a couple of projects that have been on hold until we’ve finished stripping the brick. We want to grab a couple of cabinets to place on either side of the fireplace (giving up on our idea of having the original built-ins rebuilt) and then we’ll want to repaint the entire living room and all the trim. Little by little (brick by brick!) we’re making progress. All it takes is a little patience.

Wild for Wildflowers

A bouquet of wildflowers in the bathroom

One of my favorite things about summer is that I can walk around our yard and gather a bouquet of wildflowers. This little bouquet includes a few day lilies, some fern fronds and some other leaves and branches. And even though the upstairs bathroom is in a state of disrepair, having this little container of flowers by the sink helps me forget all about that.