Doing things “The Hard Way”: Do you have what it takes? 2016

pink-bathroom-fixtures.jpgWelcoming 2016, here’s the story that now has become our Retro Renovation new year’s tradition… kind of summing up the bumpy journey so many of us share, or can expect to, when we decide to undertake a period-inspired renovation including preserving what we have and/or using hard-to-find and salvage material. Yup: Taking this less-traveled route means you are in for an adventure. You may find yourself walking the very fine line between genius and insanity. You will need tenacity, patience, a good spirit, and faith that you are on a righteous path. The Retro Decorating Gods will be with you, throwing flower petals — and burying barbed wire, just to test your mettle — they love to make mischief, too.

My The Hard Way essay, originally published in Dec. 2007, less than two months after I started the blog:

We know about taking the road less traveled. To me, doing things the hard way has the same allure. The hunt for the perfect estate sale light fixture, the set of vintage cabinets that are just right, the document wallpaper that pulls things all together.

Honestly, the reason this blog even exists is that after completing big projects, I had so much info in my mental hard drive about the hard-to-find resources available to renovate, remodel and decorate a mid century home — all obsessively and endlessly researched — that it seemed a shame to simply be done with it when my projects were completed.

But the dangers of the hard way came into focus this week, when I pulled Palm Springs Stephan into the vortex.

A week ago Friday night I spotted the brand new, mint-in-box, never installed set of circa 1958 bathroom fixtures in this exact photo, on a forum. They’d just been posted. Hot! I happened to be emailing a bit with Stephan, and knew he was working on a bathroom renovation.

Long story short, he was very excited about the prospect of pink fixtures and spent hours back-and-forth with the seller in Cheyenne, Wyoming, trying to certify the exact color, before he sent a certified check. Hours with a tile store to coordinate tile. Planned to switch the plumbing. Worked out shipping. At one point, he thought it was a done deal.

Ultimately, though, the color didn’t pan out for him, and it was back to plan A.

The moral of the story is — I guess — to know thyself. If you really truly want very special retro finds to complete your renovation vision, it’s gonna be a roller coaster. Requiring patience, tenacity, and a belief that once you put your vibes out there, the Retro Decorating Gods will send you what you need. If you think that sounds fun — so then, will be doing it The Hard Way.

P.S. Anyone within driving distance of Cheyenne, Wyoming, interested in a set of brand new, mint in box, never been installed Crane bathroom fixtures? Tub, toilet with really cool seat, sink with chrome legs/towel bar, lav faucet, tub faucet. $1000. Email Gary, who seems very nice and appreciative of them, at: [item sold]. He can give you the whole story, which begins in North Dakota.

Oh yeah. They’re not really pink. They’re beige. Or taupe. Or a sandy pinky beigey taupe. Something like that. Buckle up.

This post was originally published Dec. 9, 2007, then repeated on Jan. 4, 2008, and every year since 2010 as our first story of every year.

Have you found gratification in doing your renovating and remodeling projects The Hard Way???
But tell the truth, sometimes don’t you just want to throw in the towel, take the “what’s easy to install today” route, and move on???


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  1. Elizabeth says

    Happy New Year, Pam, Kate, and RR readers! Great essay. I am a new reader of about 4+ months. We are currently looking for an un-updated home. I found you guys at the time we were under contract with a time capsule. Though it was not what we were looking for, I fell in love with the knotty pine, bright orange Formica countertop, the green, aqua, and yellow bathroom… was all wonderful. Owner decided not to sell (if I lived somewhere for 60+ years I would have cold feet too).

    Oh well, things happen for a reason… another house that we are loving in the same neighborhood (owners have priced it WAY too high at this point – we are waiting for price drop – they’ve declined our first offer), has many original touches. You all would die of glee over the herringbone cork-looking tile in the basement and the Formica Light Aqua Spindrift desk in the upstairs bedroom, etc. But they have updated the upstairs bathroom (it is “nice” by some standards, but I find it hideous). I always wondered what color it was, but I found out over the weekend that it was originally pink and blue. I never loved pink and blue, but as soon as read that, I was kind of smitten and just knew wanted it to make it back the original at some point. But first, we need to actually own the house. ;0)

    Thanks so much for everything and giving folks like me a like-minded place. I continue to be so happy to focus on a home with personality as opposed to Greige nation. I have finally got my husband on board with Formica and COLOR and everything in between. Thank you again and best wishes for the New Year.

    • Lynn says

      Elizabeth, I am going to go through what you are now in a few months when we start looking. It seems people think they have to granite and stainless everything for their house to sell, so they remove the wonderful original stuff to do that. We are hoping to catch a house before that happens but it’s difficult. I’m in the Indianapolis area. Just curious where you were looking. I think it’s the same most places. My poor neighbor once recently described Griege (her whole house) as “tasteful”. Good luck!

  2. Ramona says

    Those are glorious retro bathroom fixtures! Someone is going to snap them up.
    Doing things the hard way can be so rewarding, especially when you have to see it and use it every day.

  3. Carolyn says

    Speaking of the “Easy to Install” way…Yahoo article today has a “kitchen trend” of pink and blue, farmhouse sinks, and rose gold appliances (coppertone’s distant cousin).
    What I’ve seen in your blog in this first year I’ve been reading is, most people try to find as much original elements as possible ($, local availability, etc.) but sometimes have to resort to what’s available new. And thank goodness, Kate and Pam (and readers, too!), when you share off-beat resources such as floor tile used in businesses and schools. It doesn’t help that too many people buy older homes and “update” them from the big box with perfectly usable stuff goes in the landfill.
    It’s a balancing act, for sure.

  4. Ali says

    We are in the middle of redoing our half bath so I can say, yes, I have at times wished that we could just take an easier route and be done with it. However, I will say that thanks to this site and the internet in general, it’s so much easier than it could be. There are manufacturers making retro inspired products now and while it’s not as easy as just going into Home Depot and picking from whatever is on the shelf, it’s possible to get a great looking bathroom with a little more work. I try to remind myself that most things worth doing take effort and that I should feel very fortunate to have the resources to be able to carefully renovate this house to last for another 50 years. Then I second guess myself, whine and complain about how hard it is. Heh.

    Now if the Retro Gods would drop a new Kohler cerulean blue sink and a peachblow sink into my lap for the full baths…

  5. Geronimom says

    Wow! There certainly is a lot of hard work & sweat equity put into those projects – so hard to decide which is most deserving of the award. Reading all the stories of doing it the “hard way” really gives me even more appreciation on how blessed we were to have found our pretty much fully intact 1961 time capsule granny ranch – right down to the pink bathroom (which was proudly featured in a design dilemma here awhile back – “Lilly Pulitzer pink bathroom…”). The only thing we’ve retro-fitted so far is the modern white “throne” which had been installed at some point previously. Imagine my delight when I recently discovered a perfect 1961 pink American Standard toilet on my local craigslist – for practically nothing. It now proudly holds court center stage in that bathroom and looks as though it’s always been there! Now… all we have left to do is decide if we replace the brand new modern kitchen appliances (which the sellers apparently installed to help sell the house) with vintage turquoise ones I found at our local Restore.. But those minor projects pale in comparison to all of the “Hard Way” challenges I’ve read here!

  6. says

    Thank you Pam and Kate for all the great stories this year. I have had a lot of fun (and frustration as well) on my own “hard way” journeys. It has been quite an education.
    I am currently putting together a set of Youngstown kitchen cabinets and counterttops in a 1970s condo. (I know!) I didn’t think they were sold here in Canada. However, as the interest in retro kitchens filtered up here, to my great delight, steel kitchens began to turn up on local sellers’ websites. Here’s my story. I just missed out on a spectacular set of cabs outside of my city, pristine and complete with the counters. I actually wept, because I had waited too long to decide. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I found a seller in my home town. This time I pounced. I found out I would need to mix and match with another
    set of Youngstowns in order to get the kitchen to fit. I feel very confident it will work out because the stories on your your site have given me the help I needed to proceed. Finding somebody to paint the cabs was quite challenging, but since I had the site’s tips, I went with an auto body painter. They turned out well! I finally found the much coveted aqua boomarang laminate. The existing sink in the set may have to be replaced, but again, I am using your stories. Also, I am still researching kitchen light fixtures, floor tile and backsplash options. They will all be courtesy of your site. I love to cook, and if I am spending so much time in my kitchen it may as well be a place that makes me smile.
    Stay tuned, and all the best in 2016!

  7. palimpsest says

    Many of the the vintage pinks are not really a blossom pink like the Gerber pink Kate used. Many of them had distinct beige or peachy undertones.

    There was a story in This Old House magazine (I think) about a guy who took a sledgehammer to his pink bathroom one night in an alcohol-fueled “I’ve been putting this off” demolition, only to wake up and see that the broken up fixtures he had piled outside were actually a pleasant and somewhat masculine beige, and it was the bright pink wall paint that made the fixtures seem so pink.

  8. Paul says

    We are going to remodel the basement bathroom in our 1916 Craftsman Bungalow in Omaha soon. We are using white Crane Drexel fixtures (got the sink, searching for the toilet) with sky blue wall tiles with painted liner tiles. I’m 16, and I plan to be an architect one day, and I’m getting a head start on it by designing the bathroom. When it’s done, I’ll send pictures. We hope it will be finished in time to be in the 2017 The Hard Way contest!

      • Paul says

        I will do that as soon as the project is done! And the Drexel sink was a great deal. We went to a salvage yard that day, and found about a dozen Drexel sinks in all colors, but they cost $50 each, so we didn’t buy one. Afterwards, we went to New Life Thrift, which is owned by my uncle. And unbelievably, there was a Crane Drexel sink there! It cost only $8.97! It is sitting in the basement, waiting for the new faucet parts from Deabath.

  9. oceana says

    We settled into our ’54 ranch house JUST in time for the holidays. Found your blog earlier this summer when we began our search for an un-remodeled vintage home. It has been an exciting journey enjoying your posts and the comments of others – imagining our new home… to finally being here and ready to roll up our sleeves.

    Each home has it’s own unique character and I just can’t get enough of reading and seeing them. Some of our traits are a vibrant red-orange formica in kitchen, though cabinetry is 70’s dark wood with scalloped edging over the sink at least… original knotted pine kitchen cabinetry with bright yellow formica still in garage (mounted for use as cabinetry), blue-green bathroom with incredible hexagon tile with carved detailing, and a very cool architectural feature where the stoop steps meet the awning with rectangle cut outs, made of wood.

    Appreciate the support of “vision” as it can be easy to feel like one is being too particular at times.

    We will need to search for the right pieces to really bring out character in the rest of the home, and are looking forward to digging deep into all of the resources here and participating more.
    Cheers : )

  10. Kathy says

    I find it hard to visualize the redo I would like to do in my 1959 rambler. This website is so helpful with that. I like the photos of other readers projects, retro homes for sale, vintage ads, and best of all the mock ups from Pam of readers asking for help. I’m kind of in that stage now with my kitchen (see Pam’s story on my yellow GE oven repair and Betty Crocker dishwasher cover). I’m ready to pull out the vinyl flooring installed in the 80’s and retro-redo. But I’m lost about what period/style to do. Go with my heart 40’s, follow the period ’59, go with 60’s, what? I don’t see many yellow appliances and round space ship type knobs on oak cupboards. Should I go 60’s Early American? Retro 50’s? I like yellow but not pink and blue pastels in kitchen? Love 40’s kitchens but mine isn’t? How do you decide what is right for you Pam? Did you do a story on that in your archive? thanks

    • pam kueber says

      This is a somewhat difficult, multi-layered question, Kathy.

      I would first say: If you are concerned about the risk of creating longterm cognitive design dissonance, make sure that any expensive [and/or big hassle] change is in harmony with the original architecture of your home. Look elsewhere in your house, or at other similar examples, to see what products and finishes were used originally. Then replicate or mimic those.

      Less expensive changes? Do whatever you please — because these are easier to change out at whim.

      But now the question is: Where are your “expensive”/”big hassle” lines drawn? For me: Expensive big hassle items tend to be affixed to walls and require professional help installing: Cabinets, flooring, countertops, appliances. Easy to change including via DIY: Wallpaper, paint color, window treatments (but not pinch pleats, which are expensive), cabinet hardware.

      So I would suggest: Keep the affixed features to period; go to town and do whatever you like decoratively. One more decorating tip: Even in a kitchen you can use some of this theory re selecting a color palette:

      Final note, lots of 1959 houses still had a homey 40s-50s look rather than an atomic 60s look. It just depends on your house and who built it.

      Does that help? Not sure how soon Kate and I will get around to Design Dilemmas again. They are super duper time consuming.

  11. Joe Felice says

    Joe’s diner is almost finished. Here are some things I’ve learned:
    1. Everything will take about twice as long as planned. If you’re not a patient person, you will be forced to become one.
    2. There will be lots of things that will pop up and for which you did not plan. You just have to deal with them as they come along.
    3. Because of the above, expect cost overruns. And everything is more expensive than you think it should be.
    4. It will be hard to find providers and workers who share your vision. It’s a HUGE bonus if you can, but try to engage the others in your dream.
    5. Don’t order large items online, if you can avoid it. If they’re not right, you’ll have to pay to return them, if the company even lets you do so.
    6. Expect to do a LOT of leg work and web surfing.
    7. Order enough supplies (tile, wallpaper, etc.). In the middle of your job, they will be discontinued, and you’ll be stuck if you don’t have enough.
    8. Pay heed to Pam’s words about safety hazards. The older your home, the more important this is. Fortunately, my condo is only-20 years old, and still meets my city’s building codes, without any lead or asbestos.

    My horror story:
    I originally ordered my booth online from a company out of Chicago. I specified “ocean” color for the vinyl. We all know what color ocean is (turquoise), and it is a specific color known in the vinyl industry. A reputable dealer who dabbles in ’50’s recreations knows exactly what color it is. Another company had no problem making my bar stools. This color is manufactured by 3 companies, but it is exactly the same across all-three product lines. Well, my dealer apparently did not know what color this is, so, instead of asking, it just made the benches in navy, which, of course, would never work. When I informed it of the error, I was told that the benches were custom made and could not be returned! I certainly didn’t expect this response from a “reputable” company, which this one obviously isn’t. After trying to reason with the customer-disservice department, I disputed the charge on my credit card, and returned the benches at my expense. I sued the company in small-claims court for the amount of the shipping. I also posted a review on Yelp! and filed a complaint with the Better-Business Bureau. The company did not respond to the lawsuit, the review or the complaint to the BBB, but you can bet it is trying to get it’s money from my credit union. I can tell you, that simply isn’t going to happen! In the meantime, I found a local upholsterer here in Denver to make the booth for me. Of course, it will cost about 50% more, but I learned that lesson the hard way. I am awaiting the booth as I write. The lessons here are never assume someone knows what you’re saying, and vet all companies thoroughly before spending money with them. If I had read the Yelp! Reviews prior to buying my booth online, I would have most certainly gone elsewhere.

    I can safely say I will never undertake another project of this nature in my lifetime. I can’t even imagine putting in a pink bathroom or “authentic” kitchen (like Pam did). Such a project would probably put me in a mental hospital. Good luck and god-speed to all of you who do undertake major retro projects. We all enjoy seeing and hearing about them.

  12. John Hayes says

    I changed my white bathroom fixtures to a “Coral” pink. It’s different than a regular “Pink” and there is a definite difference!

    I have heard Lana Turner once said; “That’s not pink, it’s California Coral!”

  13. Donna says

    My son recently purchased my 94 year old Aunt’s house, complete to what we believe is a 1954(when house was built) Kohler peachblow bathroom. He wants to take a sledgehammer to it. I convinced him to wait as there are a lot of people wanting them, they are just not his taste. So the big question is- how do you go about giving/selling these little treasures? The only thing he doesn’t have is the original toilet seat which I have seen on E-Bay. Any words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated 🙂

  14. Donna says

    Tell me about it. He almost put a Heywood Wakefield bookcase and chair on the curb. I about had a heart attack- oh that 20 something generation 😉

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