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50s flooring: Help Bill find new tile for his 1955 olive green bathroom

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We have another 50’s bathroom to help spiff up this Saturday. Here’s what Bill in Lawrence, Kansas, has to say about his awesome 1955 heart-of-the-midwest college town Split Level and its olive green bathroom:


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Pam,

Love your site, it’s a great resource. My wife and I recently bought a mid century home (1955) that is quite fabulous but the bathrooms are in need of new flooring. (The walls are fine.) I saw a pic of your bathroom and would like to know how I could find a similar tile floor: This looks like a simple tile, but is it still available? … I would appreciate
hearing your recommendations.

I quizzed Bill a little more on the color of the wall tiles and of course, his house:

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I would characterize it as … a Light Olive Green. The color on those olives your aunt used to serve you that you hated as a kid. The first photo is the most color accurate–the others are a bit on the greenish side–but I think you’ll get the idea….In any case, the tile is showing its age and I would like to find a tile (I’m open to other floor materials as well) that fits the lime green on the walls. It’s not that it’s an ugly design, I just think it could look better. I would like to keep the original lime green wall tile, however.

I’ve also included some other pics of the house for you to look at. I figure you might be interested in these. The house was built in 1955 and is very near the University of Kansas campus, yet it it is very secluded because it sits up high off the road. The site is really something. It was designed by a KU architecture graduate student for an economics professor at the University.

The wife in the family passed away last year. The house is for the most part completely original and untouched, right down to the original Armstrong 5253 linoleum kitchen floor. The only change that I can figure was the bathroom tile in this bathroom. We also have a master bedroom bathroom (very small) that I will deal with later. After that I plan to put in new (retro) wallpaper in the master bedroom, for which I may consult with you again.

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Thanks for the nice words, we do feel very lucky to be living here. Still can’t believe it. We want to preserve it.Thanks very much for your great site and your help.

Bill — Lawrence, KS

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Thank you, Bill. A phenomenal house, to say the least! Thanks so much for sending all the photos and letting us have a vicarious look.

Regarding your floor, I have two suggestions, and a few more comments. I would also love to hear what readers have to say!

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  1. The tile that I used in all three of my bathrooms was American Olean Chloe. It’s called a ‘pinwheel’ design, and it reaches all the way back to the 50s and even before. I used the all-white in two bathrooms, and the white with black dot in the third. In the photo above, I show white with bronze dot – which might work well if you want to introduce brown into your bathroom. Note, though, that even I get nervous at decision-making especially over costly ‘fixed’ items like tile. So I tend to prefer the all-white. I think it gives you more flexibility in the long term. Final note here, this AO Chloe tile is a ‘glazed’ ceramic – meaning that it has a finish on top. When wet, it can get slippery, so you never use this in showers. But as a floor tile, it fine.
  2. Another choice that I really like is some S.J. Masters unglazed mosaic shown here. A more abstract design. I also like the color, which is more ivory or off-white, rather than bright white like the Chloe. I really wanted bright white in my bathrooms – because I used a 2×6 bright white trim tile at the top of the 4×4 wall (field) tile. In your bathroom, you could go with either, I think. Bright white for a … brighter look. The Masters shade for a ‘muddier’ white actually, similar to the effect you now have. Bottom line – you will need to eyeball this — and decide which effect you want. Note: S.J. Masters is apparently a Connecticut company, and may not be available nationally. I think that tile suppliers can be very regional. The best bet — go to the biggest tile store you can find, to see what’s available.
  3. Some things I don’t recommend: marble or slate or limestone…today’s luxe materials. Best to match your modest (by today’s standards) wall tiles with modest, but well made, floor tiles.
  4. Also, you mention interest in other materials. You could certainly go with a lineoleum or vct…but personally, I like tile for the bathroom for their waterproof qualities.

Comments…and again, readers’ help is welcome:

  1. Grout colors can be equally tricky. Overall I recommend a warm grey. It outlines the tile shape (which is nice), is neutral and picks up the chrome accents, and you start out ahead in terms of keeping the grout clean looking.
  2. I sealed my grout. Man, was that a pain. But worth it.
  3. My tile guy used a latex grout. But I wish we’d gone with a sanded grout. I think that would have looked…more vintage. You must have at min. 1/4″ between tiles to use a sanded grout, and then, be careful if you use a glazed floor tile. I think. Be sure you use/check with a pro.
  4. On the pro front: Note that unless your walls are perfectly square, using a very small scale tile can be a real pain relative to installation. That is, you end up having to cut some tiles along the wall no matter what. When they are tiny tiles, you can really see it (via the edge line of the tiles) when the walls are not squared off. This did not stop me. And over the long run, it’s no big issue. But it could bother some people. That’s why you often see the floor tile ‘tucked under’ the wall tile – which I don’t think is possible in your case.
  5. Finally, I think you’re also really going to want to check with a pro relative to demo’ing your existing floor tile. Like, you are going to have to take out the whole subfloor to get it out. You’ll want to be careful not to damage the wall tile when you do this. Also, when you re-lay the subfloor and plan for the new tile, make sure the final installation of the subfloor is (1) properly set to the walls accounting for expansion and contraction of the plywood so that it does not crack the grout/tile there and (2) LEVEL with your adjacent floor (I presume, the hall). I think this is really important in terms of giving a quality feel and the sense that the floor was always there. When you have to step “up” – ick! In our bathrooms, rather than a marble piece under the door (there’s a word for this, which I can’t think of, at this moment) we used a piece of chrome edging. Very flat. Nice and very retro.

To wrap, let’s try the bathroom pic large again – next to the floors:

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Thanks again, Bill. You need to go to the tile store! But meanwhile, I hope this helps. Finally, wallpaper?

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