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Renovate a 1950s Bathroom

Updated: Jun. 30, 2017

Remodeling a retro bath for less than $5,000

FH07MAR_RENBAT_02-3Family Handyman
This classic 1950s bathroom was spiffed up, outfitted with a few modern luxuries, and brought up to date function-wise without destroying the character or original period details— and for bargain price.

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Big splash, low budget

Some say that if you wait long enough, Everything—including 1950s bathrooms— comes back in style. But “in style” doesn't necessarily mean “in perfect shape” or “in sync with today's lifestyle.” Such was the case with the bathroom shown here. Moisture problems had caused peeling paint and sticking vanity drawers, while 50 years of wear and tear had taken a toll on the grout, fixtures and hardware. However, the owners, Mary Jane and Bruce Pappas, saw too many things going for the space to completely gut it, such as unique tile work that was still in excellent shape.

“The whole point of buying this fifties house was to create our 21st century life here while honoring the original architecture and detail,” says Mary Jane, who is a professional interior designer. “Bruce and I wanted to complement and elevate what was already here and reuse as many materials as we could.” And by doing so, they were able to reach their goal of updated function on a modest budget. The couple were able to avoid expensive demolition work and get the bathroom they wanted for just under $5,000. “The results for the investment are extraordinary,” says Mary Jane Pappas.

Updated, But Still Original

This bathroom now has greater utility and a clean, contemporary look— without breaking the bank.

ReDO, reuse, recycle

Vintage tile

The vanity's vintage “Sputnik” tile pattern inspired the khaki color scheme of the bathroom and adjoining bedroom.

New rollouts, old cabinet

The vanity cabinet is original, but for about $1,500, the new door and drawers were constructed with wipe-clean Melamine bottoms and maple sides decked out with metal slides.

Updated storage closet

Adjustable shelving with Melamine surfaces was added along with a replacement tissue box holder. A hidden cabinet outlet keeps a hair dryer ready to roll and the electric toothbrushes charged.

After adding an exhaust fan to handle the moisture problem, they began dealing with the cosmetics, as explained by Mary Jane Pappas.

Freshening tiled surfaces
A professional tiler was brought in to repair the period tiles that had seen 53 years of bathroom life. By tuckpointing broken edges and freshening the grout, the tiler brought the surfaces up to standard. “The tile is unique to the era; we embraced the retro feel of it. It was in great shape and worth saving.”

Vanity drawers and doors
Another great example of the couple's “reuse it” philosophy lies in their treatment of the vanity. Years of water damage had made the drawers difficult to open, but instead of scrapping the entire piece, the Pappases hired Thomas J. Ross of Ross Custom Cabinetry Inc. to build new rollout drawers and cabinet doors for it and adjustable shelving for the attached linen closet. “Before, the cabinet drawers were only simple wooden boxes resting in a wooden cabinet. It was a struggle to pull 'wood-on-wood' drawers, especially when they were damp. Now that they're equipped to glide on rollers, it's like having a new piece of furniture. And when you think of the floor, tile and drywall work that we would have incurred had we demolished and installed all new cabinetry, that decision saved thousands.”

Paint, pulls and hinges
The vanity face-lift continued with several coats of an enamel paint and re-chromed hinges and the addition of contemporary drawer pulls. “We re-chromed the hinges because the plates had a unique screw pattern and I didn't want to add any additional screw holes to the vanity and risk the old holes showing.” The original mirror was saved by painting its trim the same color as the vanity.

Sink faucet
The Pappases wanted to add a soap pump and a water filter to their bath sink. By changing the old, widespread faucet for a single-lever faucet, they were able to avoid the expense of either buying a new sink or drilling new holes. The change in style left two unused holes for the new accessories.

The old sconces were replaced with lights that better match the new drawer pulls and add a contemporary flair to the room.

Keepers! The '50s heat fan and tissue dispenser
The couple wanted to maintain the items that, like the heat fan, were still stylishly serving a useful function in the bathroom. “It's a nice amenity and it still worked, so why get rid of that?” They were even able to save the original metal tissue dispenser housed in the linen cabinet. It could no longer hold tissue boxes because the dispenser slot was vertical instead of the modern horizontal style. “But the same company, Brobick, now offers a replacement dispenser that fits tissue boxes perfectly.”

The tub
Replacing a bathtub affects the tile surrounding it, the walls above it and the plumbing below it. Keeping the existing tub saves tremendous time and money. So the tub stayed put, while some of the more easily changed elements around it were replaced. One of the first changes was to oust the shower door. “In a small bathroom, a flexible shower curtain creates a sense of spaciousness. And I use my bathtub every day, so a shower door is just not practical,” Pappas says. The original tub had a single showerhead with a bathtub faucet. Now a low-cradled hand shower, perfect for tub bathers, easily sets into an adjustable height showerhead fixture, adding to the usefulness and elegance of the bathroom.

Simple details make the difference

Custom blind

Instead of settling for an off-white window blind in the bathroom, Pappas used a window blind company to create a custom window treatment to match the wall color. (Small rooms appear even smaller with a different color window treatment.) “For $175, getting an exact color match is a great deal,” says Pappas.

Towels and rugs

The towels and bathroom rug proved to be a shopping challenge. “I wanted to find rich colors to work with the khaki walls and the cabinetry. I found high-quality towels I love from an online store, but searched and searched for a matching rug that would stand up to a wet environment. Finally I had a custom one handmade to match,” says Pappas.

Shower curtain pull

A last little splurge of elegance lies in the Kravet silk tassel shower curtain pull ($75). Costing half as much as the Restoration Hardware shower curtain itself, the tassel adds a touch of luxury to this otherwise thrifty remodel.

Having saved a bundle by retrofitting many existing systems in the bathroom, the Pappases had some budget left to indulge in a few accessories.