Gut remodel without guilt? The Retro Renovator’s Creed

Retro Renovation Anne Taintor Caption Contest
Caption by Jennifer — winner of our special Anne Taintor Caption Contest!

Warning: This is going to be a long rambling story, because writing this out helps me analyze, and I am not always sure *exactly* how I feel. I will probably continue to edit for clarity, based on your feedback. So here goes:

  • I always seem to open a can of worms when I allow myself a (usually highly caffeinated) rant — like this past weekend when I launched into Lowes and their recent bathroom-meets-sledgehammer TV commercial. I’ve also *allowed* the rant a few other times, when discussing Resist the Greige Nation, for example.
  • On the other hand, I have a mantra about reader comments: “No one should be made to feel bad for their decisions”… and I do not like and will usually editcertain words like h***, u***, h******, and d****. <– My edits are usually comprised of adding the asterisks, blanking out the letters.
  • Hmmm: Do my prohibitions about negative reader comments become hypocritical when I launch a rant?  In the same vein, then, is it “okay” or “wrong” for me to edit comments that include the irksome h***, etc. words?
  • Whenever I launch a rant, I think I may also be leaving the impression that I oppose remodeling… that not keeping what’s original is *wrong.* Clarification is due.

So in this story, I’m gonna try to outline my thinking about and approach to these points, with the caveat — make your own decisions — it’s your house!

1. Yes, this blog is pro-preservation.

When I first started this blog, I consciously made the decision to stay away from politics and social commentary. I’ve tiptoed in only occasionally, I *think*. For example, there were lots of bad social things going on from 1946 onward. I don’t try to illuminate or opine on them, that’s for other blogs. This blog is, fundamentally, about researching and reporting on resources to help you renovate your home in period-appropriate style — delivering products and ideas to help owners of midcentury houses get their jobs done more easily — in a marketing world that doesn’t make it easy, because our journey is not with the mainstream.

In the same vein, I kind of consciously made the decision that I would try to stay away from the politics of renovation and remodeling a house. Although in this area, I am sure I have been less successful.

In general, I have tried not to *preach* that you should keep what you have, versus gut remodel it for something new. I *think* I understand it’s more effective to *show* rather than to *tell*, so I show photos of how our homes and interiors were originally designed… so you can see how it was done… I show photos of how other readers are renovating… all, so that you can make your own decisions. I try not to tell you what you should do.

But do I *believe* that a homeowner should try to preserve what they have rather than gut it?

Yes — as a first approach to your new/old home — yes, I do. And, I am very sure my beliefs comes through in what I write. There is no such thing as objective journalism. So, even though I say I don’t want to tell you what to do, of course, I am going to bend that way in what I write about and how I write about it.

Even so, like I said, I try not to preach. Instead, I try to “show”. For example, if a reader sends me photos of their renovation to consider for the blog, and they gutted what I believe was a perfectly nice looking original room and replaced it with something kind of … 2012 … well, then, I don’t post it. I figure, “They don’t understand the focus of this blog.” The focus is: Renovating in period-appropriate style.

Why do I believe that preservation is a wise first route? Let me count the ways:

  • (1) Don’t kid yourself, every room in your house is, and looks *dated*.  Dated to the date when what was added was “hot.” There may be some truly timeless rooms out there, but golly, they are hard to find.
  • (2) If you are gonna renovate for longterm value, you might as well *date* your interiors to the *date* of the house, because at least when people say it’s *dated* it will be *dated* historically appropriately. One day it may even be desirable as an “authentic period restoration” — and there are usually markets for authentic.
  • (3) This is especially true about kitchens and bathrooms — which cost a lot of money to renovate. Heck, do whatever you want with your furniture, but anything expensive affixed to the wall, think long and hard before plunking down that credit card for today’s latest fashion, unless you plan on putting the house up for sale the day your renovation is complete. Even then, flipping is risky business.
  • (4) Midcentury homes are historically interesting, beautiful and increasingly desirable. Over the past five years, I have heard more and more and more examples of folks wanting time capsules in great shape. Why rip out what is going to be desirable?
  • (5) Much of what was built in midcentury America was better made that what’s available today. If it has lasted 50 years already and is still in good shape today, I’ll bet that it has many more decades of utility ahead, if it continues to be well maintained.
  • (6) How much of your money do you really want to spend on renovating your house? Maybe you would rather save for retirement instead? It may be fun to be young and poor, but it’s not fun to be old and poor.
  • (7) If everyone in the world lived like we do in America, we would need four Earths to supply the materials.
  • (8) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you were a perfectly nice vintage bathroom or kitchen and still had lots of life left in you, would you want to be gutted with an evil glee sledgehammer? Okay, so now I am getting kind of silly with my list. You get the point. But kinda bottom line: Default = Leave the stuff alone, make sure it’s safe and environmentally friendly. Bank your savings; debt is very stressful. Respect the old — and the life-energy of the people who built the old. (Could they really all have been wrong in how they designed these homes? Are we really that much smarter about design? I don’t see any evidence that’s so.) Love the House You’re In.

2. At the same time, this blog is not anti-remodel.

When Kate wrote about her decision to gut-remodel her bathroom, one commenter noted that she sounded almost apologetic. Actually — it was me who, in the edit process, asked Kate to beef up the story to ensure she showed gratitude for the old bathroom and the service that it had provided. This is something that grew on me and my focus over time. One thing that I *think* I have learned in the five years of doing the blog, is that in postwar America, people were immensely grateful to be able to build and buy the houses we are now in. I won’t belabor the point, but most Americans had diddly squat until after World War II. Like, a huge percentage did not have indoor plumbing. So my takeaway is: Who are we to think the bathrooms or kitchens or knotty pine living rooms that they so gratefully built and raised their families in are *fill in the blank with a mean-minded adjective”? Really. I never knew anyone who went out of their way to design an u*** room — the folks who installed these rooms thought that their new/now old (bathroom, kitchen, etc.) was beautiful. And in the day it probably was! Au courant! But, au courant changes… Usually because marketers want to dis-satisfy us with what we have…. They want us to rip out what they sold us 50 years or 30 years or 10 years ago…. and buy their new and improved look…. which becomes *dated* soon enough…. and the ridiculous cycle starts all over again. Be cognizant of the manipulation — and you can break the cycle in your own life and spend less time and less money chasing the fleeting fashion dream.

Did you know that gratitude is the #1 attribute of happy people? Be grateful for that bathroom, even if — and maybe especially if — you decide it is time to remodel.

But am against gut remodeling? NO. I gut remodeled my three bathrooms and my kitchen. I don’t want to go into great detail to defend my decision — because we don’t need to defend our decisions. Suffice to say, I think I was true to my beliefs on this one — I always compliment the 1970s kitchen that we replaced — it was really nicely done given the styles then — really! And,  I really liked the multicolor bathrooms and would surely have kept them if they had been in better shape. In each case — with both the kitchen and the bathrooms — I surely did not like having to spend all that money to gut remodel, and the whole process was very stressful.

On Kate’s story, Brian T. asked this question:

Pam has started her list of things that are definitely valuable to a Retro Renovator. How about a list of things that no one needs to feel guilty about tossing, even though they’re “vintage”? Item #1: Plastic tile! I just got rid of it in a bathroom I gutted — there was no question of trying to work with it. It seem like “mauve” might make the list for some reason, along with “things that smell” and “things that will never look clean.” Pam, you’ve instilled a sort of moral code about “thou shalt not assume pink bathrooms are too dated to live with”; can you start up a list of “thou shalt not beat thyself up for throwing out ____”?

Okay. Here is my first draft in response to Brian’s question, Though shalt not beat thyself up for throwing out __________. I need to give everything a name, so how about I call this the Retro Renovator’s Creed:

The Retro Renovator’s Creed:

Thou shalt not beat thyself up for throwing out… features (yes, original bathrooms and kitchens, included) that you have lived with for a while, sought to understand (rather than just h*** in a knee-jerk way), decide just aren’t for you, and which you can afford to change without adding to the family into debt in a way that will stress you out. (Test: If you only paid cash, and you had saved up all the money, would you really use all the cash for this project?)
If it’s broken beyond repair… or if repairing it would cost more than buying a comparable new replacement… do what you gotta do.
If technology has improved and a new product available today delivers important or useful new benefits — and especially if they relate to safety or energy and the environment… sure, swap it out.
If you need to reconfigure the space to accommodate your needs and to lively happily there… yes, of course, make the house your own.
This is your house — make it the place you love. But: Let the old stuff go with respect for the service it has provided the generations before — no evil-glee sledgehammering. Remember, that bathroom/kitchen/etc. was someone’s pride and joy once — they raised their families there — they loved that room. Respect their decisions, don’t deride them. See: The Golden Rule. Most everyone I talk today bemoans the “loss of civility” in discourse today; let’s take the high road and be civil about how we treat and talk about the rooms that came before us.
Send still-functional materials to the Re-Store, if you really think someone else will want them.
And of course, prioritize renovations that address identified safety and environmental issues — and when you renovate, engage properly licensed professionals and Renovate Safe.
What else should I consider for the Creed, readers? “Mind your own beeswax?” Your feedback is very welcomed. Note, I am wary of calling out any particular items; for example, plastic tiles may be just lovely in certain rooms and uses.
3. My commenting policy: No One May be Made to Feel Bad for their Decisions. And, nix to the h***, u***, h******, d****…

My blog is my happy place. Hateful angry words distress me. They are usually not required — really: *Hate* a room color? I have said before, Let’s save our hate and the call-to-action it engenders for [fill in the blank, choose social/political issues that you really care about] that lead to real human suffering (rather than the suffering that comes from having to bathe in a pastel-colored bathroom, for example). So I don’t allow these words in comments on the blog: Hate, Ugly, Hideous, Dated. Please try not to use them, I will edit the word with asterisks. Most regular readers know my feelings and approach to this — and they’ve told me they appreciate it… that it is part of what has made this a supportive community. On a regular basis, this whole h***, etc. issue is not a very big issue on the blog. It usually comes up only when I start the rant. Then others jump right in to play. I totally understand. So, in a goodly number of cases, I’ll take the pin!

So: What if you don’t really like something on the blog and want to offer a critical comment? (1) If it’s simply a product that I have posted, say, something from the Crate & Barrel website, hey, no problem, say why you don’t like it and why and offer an alternative. Be nice about it, of course. BUT (2), if it’s a reader’s home, well, you know the answer already. This is a supportive site. Find something to like and comment on that and move on. Honestly, this is not much of an issue on this site, I can only think of two or three times I did not approve a nasty comment, and they were from passers-by, not regulars. I am writing this only to be complete.

What if you have “advice” for a reader and their room? A “rule” I read on this recently: Don’t offer advice unless someone has agreed you may offer it. As in, a made-up example:  Mary has shared a shot of her living room so that we can see her Heywood Wakefield collection. There is no talk of wall color. You think you have a great idea. Before just spitting it out, you need to ask, “Wow, that room is really beautiful. May I offer you some ideas about a wall color that might make that whole Heywood Wakefield set pop even more?” If Mary responds saying, “Sure, I’d love to hear!,” you are good  to go. But maybe she will say, “We just painted the room this color last week, and we are really happy with it.” Which means oopsy, shut yer trap. Or maybe she won’t answer at all. Which means…. yup, shut yer trap. Bottom line: If you ask permission to give advice, and the recipient says yes, the recipient is more … receptive. This is the civil way to do it. Mea culpa: On Kate’s post about her bathroom room layout, she didn’t ask for my help — and I didn’t ask permission. Yet, I jumped right in to offer advice. This was not the “right” way to do it. She gets mega props for responding with grace. (Next time, I will have her make her closing point in the blog post, “What do you think of my layout, readers?” haha)

Hey, the other thing I want to bring up is how we talk about other homeowners who choose current decorating styles. On this point, I also want to encourage civility… and I may start editing comments accordingly. Yes, folks continue to put in granite countertops etc. etc. etc. in droves. This does not make them bad people. I think about how to talk about this a lot, and here is what I have come up with:

I think that a lot of folks have only limited interest in decorating. They will buy what’s current. And move on. And that’s okay. They have other passions, other interests… whereas we are nutso passionate and highly visual and way way way into decor.

HEY: The folks who built and furnished our groovy mid mods also were most likely only interested in their decor up to a point. THEY bought what was CURRENT, too. I even have vintage marketing material — training for a steel kitchen cabinets salesman — instructing him that the first job he had, during a customer consultation, was to “dis-satisfy her with her kitchen.” This was like 1948! 50 or 60 years later, we are left with their desire for “the latest and greatest.”

I guess what I’m saying is: So, let’s be sure we are civil, too, about all other folks and their decorating choices. This means that even I will need to stop dropping “Save the Pink Bathroom” bombs on other blogs that continue to show decimated pink bathrooms, I’m pretty sure it’s not winning any converts, just annoying folks who are trying to do their best. I will revert to the approach I started out with: Show don’t tell. Does that make sense?

4. Is it hypocritical of me to rant, given the policies I’ve just outlined?

Yes, guilty. It’s easier to catch a bear with honey. Or is it, bees to honey? Whenever I rant — which I usually try to focus on marketeers, certainly not individuals — I always get lots of positive feedback from readers. Go, Pam, go! But I also almost always end up offending a few (maybe more), too — because this ain’t a real conversation where you can really explain yourself and talk things through, it’s writing, and sometimes it comes out …. wrong…. or harsher than you mean it to. I don’t want to offend. I want to make this a place where people feel good about and encouraged in their decisions to make a home they love — usually in a way that’s “the road less traveled”. So I recommit to trying to moderate my rants in the future. I think I can still make my points: By showing, not telling, and when I must opine — with civility.

  1. JustanotherPam says:

    Frankly this is the best piece I’ve read in regards to mid century homes or furniture and I’ve read a lot of them which lean heavily to whinging about people painting their furniture or renovating a room that is beyond repair.

    Thank you so much for all you do for all of us and history too, Pam!

  2. Jeannemara says:

    I must say that I agree with the frustration you feel when you see others DESTROY perfectly functional items. We have a bathroom that is almost all tile. The bathroom, from the get-go, was very poorly designed. I have wanted to change it from the start. I’m glad now, that I waited-what is it-fifteen years-to look into remodeling it. During those fifteen years, I have become much more aware of our duty to the earth and future generations. I am disabled, but I am going to pull all that tile and reuse it in the new bathroom. My husband looked at me as though I had lost my mind when I told him that. Of course, showing him the dollar savings is the way I got him over to the light side.
    So, you keep up the good work and maybe you’ll see our improved bathroom.
    P.S.: We also have a “pink-ish” bathroom that I have been crazy about from the start. So, I’ll be refurbishing, but not re-doing that bathroom.
    P.P.S.: Having noticed how so many words have lost meaning during the past several years, I use the word love only in the ways in which I speak of, or feel about, others. It has been interesting, and actually fun (this is from a person who considers reading the dictionary fun) thinking of other words to use in place of the “common” “Love.”

  3. Melody says:

    Viva la Namaste Renovation! Pam, you really hit the nail on the head (gently and respectfully, for all the right reasons). This is why I frequent your website for deco and reno ideas, and not another wildly-popular site with snarky comments. One must have a suit of armor to ever post a project photo on that website. Here, I feel like you are all friendly neighbors, and would probably let me borrow your drain snake, if I needed it.

  4. April says:

    What do you think about painting dark wood paneling? It Is real wood, but is sooooo dark in the basement. I think we will paint it, because it will fell better and less cave like, but I am torn. I will leave the paneling in the study, upstairs. It is large sheets of honey stained oak, and looks great.

    Also what do you think about replacing or embellishing plain flat doors? The house is 1958, what types of interior doors would look appropriate? The multi pained doors seem out of place.

    1. pam kueber says:

      Sounds like you are new to this house. I recommend: Unless it is an environmental or safety issue, LIVE WITH IT at least six months, even better, a year.

      Plain flat doors — were the norm, I tend to believe.

  5. Margie C. says:

    Hi Pam,
    Just uploaded my two-toned tile bathroom to your page. I may have sent you this article before, but in case I haven’t, here it is.
    I found this column by Walter Jowers of Nashville online when I bought my 1958 ranch home in 2003. I have lived by it as much as possible ever since and I think you and your readers would find it helpful. I have a knotty pine bedroom, a peach & yellow tiled bathroom (newly outfitted with American Universal SX series 1″ hex floor tile to replace a poorly done DIY job of white glazed saltillo tile someone used to replace the original peach 3″ hex tile), and a pink tiled half bath. I’m currently mulling over my options for the half bath since I have discovered a broken toilet seal and some wood rot below it which will require tearing out the tile, removing the toilet, removing the vanity cabinet, and retiling. I am going to try to salvage the original hex tile but if I can’t, I’ll replace it with American Universal’s SX-10 mottled pink, which will go with the discontinued SX-11 mottled peach in the main bath. It’s really lovely tile and I think the spirit of the original bathrooms is maintained. Thanks for your blog and all the great tips!

      1. Margie C. says:

        Me, too!! I’ve been waiting 2-1/2 years to get it installed! I hate to say that I’m glad my vintage toilet cracked and was irreparable, but it got my floor done. I’ll upload a closeup photo of the tile with it’s “Peaches & Cream” grout. Once it was done, I realized I sort of missed the look of the ungrouted tile sheet I’d been staring at for years and sort of second-guessed my grout. But a friend saw it and said, “It’s so pretty! It looks like ice cream!” Orange sherbet is my favorite frozen treat flavor, so I guess it works!

  6. Susan says:

    I live in a beautiful Colonial Revival house built by my husband’s grandparents in 1950. We think long and hard about anything we do to the house . We have a pink bathroom and a deep claret bathroom that we lovingly nurture. They are quite elegant and the craftsmanship is superb. We have made them look clean and cool and are very happy with the results. I’ll send a pic when we are finished with the latest painting job.

  7. Alice says:

    Pam – I think you need to share this and I don’t really perceive it as a rant. I think about when I first found your site…you were brand new out there. You barely had followers and not alot of content – and yet I was so excited to find you and Palm Springs Stephen – yes, two people who could reaffirm our fascination with returning our new purchase to its midcentury glory. So, I’ve kind of ‘grown up’ with you and because of that journey, understand your thinking and presentations. However, you have LOTS of followers now, many of whom are new to you and your ways…so I know that it had to be helpful to them to get a recap of your view on this whole love of yours.

    And most of all, we have to keep in mind that YOU are growing and developing thoughts on this journey as well.

    Thanks for an EXCELLENT blog…it is a highlight of my week!

  8. Mike S says:

    In a town not far from where I live, there stands a municipal building built in 1979. As you can imagine, its original wall and floor coverings were awful: bright oranges mixed with bright yellows, and so on. Add to that the chunkiness of 1970’s “Urban Renewal” architectural tinkering, and you get the drift.

    One might say it should be bulldozed, or at the very least, brought along into today’s versions of “acceptable” aesthetics. But if you saw what has happened to the much-maligned style of that municipal building, you would cry out to have those responsible for it’s present rework to be brought to the gallows.

    My point is that if you don’t like your current setup, or if it doesn’t fall in line with your way of living, for heaven’s sake DON’T chop it up, or in some way lose the ideal and intent of its architect. Doing so really won’t make you happy.

    Don’t like knotty pine? If some sort of therapy won’t bring you around to liking it, then replace it with some sort of other paneling which suits your liking. Point is, KEEP THE FEEL, but replace it with something you like better. But for the love of all that is decent and proper, keep your Mid Mod pad MID MOD!!! It’s EASY–and if you find it difficult to do yourself, HIRE A PROPER DESIGNER! You’ll be glad you did!

    1. pam kueber says:

      Hey Mike S: Lots of us here LOVE the 70s oranges and yellows. But that aside 😉 I hear what you are saying, I think: Once you start messing with something historic… to bring it au courant… well, you risk “remuddling” for sure…

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