Mary Elizabeth’s year-long, little-by-little 1959 pink bathroom restoration

Gerber-Bahama-Pink-toiletReader Mary Elizabeth has been a frequent commenter here at Retro Renovation over the last year. We first discovered her through a comment she left on SaveThePinkBathrooms.com:

Mary Elizabeth being a bit camera shy with the help of some birds.
Mary Elizabeth being a bit camera shy with the help of some birds.

My husband and I did it backwards–we lived in a condominium for 30 years, then bought a 1959 ranch house for our retirement. We bought it from the daughter of the carpenter who built it for his family. We worked to save what was left of the gray and pink bathroom, complete with old pink tub, PLASTIC tile walls and ceramic tile floor. Unfortunately, the toilet and sink were gone. I spent many an hour peeling off the loose tiles around the tub, cleaning off the darkened mastic, and gluing them back with caulk. I found a pink striped shower curtain and shade at a curtain store and topped the shade with a flowery swag with lots of pink. At some point I’d like to replace the tub with a new one, but it’s hard finding pink tubs in new or like-new condition.

Its been about a year since Mary Elizabeth and her husband started down the long road of restoring their 1959 pink and grey tiled bathroom — and all along, Mary Elizabeth has been sending me updates about their progress, solutions and finds. Their pink and grey bathroom has evolved during this time — and while they originally wanted to get rid of their plastic wall tiles, they have now repaired and embraced them. How’s that for “Love the House You’re In?”

Step 1: Making the bathroom more user friendly

A shot of Mary Elizabeth’s bathroom about a year ago — with quick fix new vanity.

Shortly after Mary Elizabeth’s first comment, I contacted her to see if she would be interested in having her bathroom featured in a story. She happily agreed, but it seemed every few weeks, she would further tweak the bathroom. It wasn’t until just recently that she called the project “done” more or less. The biggest changes to the space over the last year have involved the vanity/sink and toilet. At first they had to quickly replace the sink and vanity to make their only bathroom usable. Mary Elizabeth wrote:

bathroom-before-1This bathroom is definitely a work in progress. Because the house had only one bath before we built an addition, we had to work quickly before we moved in to make the bath usable. The pink toilet and sink were long gone before we bought the house, although the original pink tub and pink and beige ceramic floor tile remained. The vanity that was there had water damage, so we had to replace it with something. (The bathroom is very narrow, so the vanity we installed is only 19 inches deep.)

grey-plastic-tile-walls-ceilingThe older lighted mirrored medicine cabinet was in bad shape, was the only source of light in the bath, and had no electric outlet for a hair dryer or shaver. So we had to replace the cabinet with a new one and add the lights and a new electric outlet. The little hanging cabinet is was built for our bath in our old condo, so I just found a paint color similar to the wall tile and repainted it. I restored the plastic tile as best I could–and the original owners had left a nice stack of new leftover tile for us–but our future project is to replace it with ceramic tile, continuing the pink and gray theme. I think the floor is in good shape, but I’d like to clean up the grout a little more and have yet to find the perfect product for getting stains out.

Studying my books and old Crane and Kohler catalogs, some on this site, I have noticed that white fixtures were often mixed with the colored wall tile in many forties, fifties, and sixties bathrooms, so I think I will go with white. Because we prefer vanities to freestanding sinks, I am going to design a new mid-century-style vanity based on those in books and catalogs and have Bruce build it.

Step 2: More repairs, a pink toilet seat, and a pink painted vanity

A few months later, I heard from Mary Elizabeth again:

Hello, Kate!

I am attaching seven new photos of our updated pink-and-gray bathroom renovation. We were busy during Blizzard Nemo, as we had power most of the three days we were stuck inside.

retro-pink-tubThis photo shows the 1959 Briggs Venetian Pink tub and gray and pink plastic tile that started it all. Now that I have polished up the tub with Kohler K-P1888-NA Cast Iron Cleaner 227 g/8 o.z.(*affiliate link) and Bruce has added a new faucet and shower controls, he is convinced that the tub will go another 50 years and he doesn’t have to rip it out. As our dads used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” (Keeping the tub is a big deal for us, saving a bit of architectural history, saving him a lot of grief and saving us a bunch of money.) You will notice in the corner a simplehuman Adjustable Tension Shower Caddy, Stainless Steel (*affiliate link). That we got almost as soon as we moved in, June 2011, because the bath alcove doesn’t have a single cubby for soap, shampoo, etc. If you buy one of these vertical tension caddies in any brand, read all the reviews and wild stories on line. Some of the cheaper ones don’t stay put and collapse at inconvenient times. And if you are saving a pink bathroom instead of buying all new fixtures, you can afford a nice shower caddy.

In an attempt to make the modern vanity fit into her retro bathroom, pink and grey paint and new knobs were added.

The wood vanity was put in as a stopgap measure, as the old one wasn’t original and wasn’t in good condition. Eventually, we will replace it with a mid-century modern style vanity we will design and build. But we are holding out for a salvaged sink in Venetian Pink (or Bahama Pink or Blossom Pink in other manufacturers’ palettes). The white toilet was new when we moved in, but we have ordered a custom color Bemis toilet seat to match the tub.

pink-tub-grey-plastic-tileHere is where Bruce spent most of his time during the blizzard. Although I had taken off, cleaned, and replaced most of the tile around the tub, there were a few spots where corners were popping off. He started out by thinking the faucet and shower controls were putting too much pressure on the tile, but when he removed them and started taking off tile, he discovered about a 4 x 4 foot area where the sheetrock had got wet and mold was starting to grow. So he ripped out that square (and of course double wrapped it in plastic and went right to the trash can in the garage with it) Then he mended the wall with a piece of sheetrock (yes, salvaged from another project, as usual, and conveniently stored in the basement, so even though we couldn’t go out to the hardware store for anything, we had it all here). Bruce cleaned the glue off the tiles by soaking in mineral spirits, primed the piece of wall, made sure the edges were even, and replaced all the tile. I discovered that mineral spirits works to remove whatever brown glue someone used to replace loose tiles. We think it was Goop or rubber cement. We still have a stack of new tiles the former owner left us, so anytime we have broken a tile in our enthusiasm for renovation or cleanliness we have been able to replace it.


Another discovery, during the week just before the blizzard. Bruce was replacing baseboard, and when he pulled it off, he discovered that the ceramic tile floor we thought was the original 1959 one was actually newer and had been installed over another earlier vinyl floor. And all Retro Renovation fans take note–Home Depot still sells this mosaic tile, which can be used on floors, as a wall accent or on on your vanity top! It is called “Merola University Pink Mosaic,” and it sells for about $10 per square foot. It looks fantastic with a light gray grout. It will fit in with a number of your pink bathrooms where some tiles have been damaged. After I cleaned the whole floor again, Bruce regrouted in places and it looks as good as new.

Step 3: Mary Elizabeth finds a pink sink

And then a few months later — Mary Elizabeth scored the sink she had been waiting for:

pink-sink-in-vantiyMy latest news is that we are on the way to building a brand new vanity later this year, because we scored the very last Gerber oval Venetian pink (also by other names) new old stock bathroom drop-in sink in our favorite plumbing supply place in Connecticut.

Step 4: Finally “finished”: NOS pink toilet and sink, new vanity and countertop

After another month or so — presumably while Mary Elizabeth was convincing her husband to build a new vanity and countertop to house her vintage pink sink — she wrote again with more updates. Mary Elizabeth writes:

We finished (sort of) today!

Finally Mary Elizabeth found her Bahama Pink Gerber Toilet, pink sink and had her husband build a retro modern vanity and new counter that fits with the look of the bathroom.

I am attaching photos of my new (2013) Bahama Pink Gerber Toilet from Decor Island, my new old stock (1983) Venetian Pink Gerber oval drop-in sink from White’s Plumbing in West Haven, Connecticut, and my new (2013) Moen Adler faucet from Lowe’s. All are made in the USA, which in the restoration of the pink bathroom was a high priority for us. Only the retro-style cabinet knobs and full-extension drawer slides are made abroad.

retro-modern-bath-vanityMy husband Bruce and I installed the toilet, and he built the vanity from my design, loosely based on some 1950s vanities I saw in books on ranch houses but adapted to our particular Shaker/Mission aesthetic that dominates the cabinetry in the rest of the house. The vanity is plywood, painted in Benjamin Moore Historic Color Stonington Gray, and the Formica top he made is in the 1950s-retro Gray Ellipse pattern. The top is curved to give us a counter that is wider than the old one and still allow clearance for the door. Also, it prevents grandchildren from putting out their eyes on sharp corners and clumsy me from bruising my hip on the vanity. 🙂 The current project cost us just under $800 in materials. The most expensive item was the toilet, a little under $400 delivered.

university pink merola tile retro
(Note — Kate thinks Mary Elizabeth’s tile is very similar to Merola’s University Pink tile shown above, but not identical. Perhaps her floor tile is a last generation replica?)

The lighting, electrical update, new shower/tub fixtures, towel racks, shower curtain, swag curtain, shade, medicine cabinet, and Simple Human shower caddy were all part of the emergency stuff we had to do when we moved in in 2011, so we didn’t count them in the budget for this project. Sometime between moving in and this project, I bought the Ralph Lauren Chaps towels in Peony Seashell from Kohls. They look just like the kind of towels my mother gave me to go away to college in the mid 1960s.  The aren’t super-fluffy, but they are very absorbent. The shower curtain, shade, and swag curtain, also made in the USA, are from Country Curtains. The wall tile is 1950s Homart from Sears Roebuck, in Dove Gray and Malibu Pink, original to the house. The floor tile is Merola’s University Pink. It was installed by the daughter and son-in-law of the original owners sometime before we bought the house.

Done? Well, not quite: Mary Elizabeth points to one more item still on her pink bathroom restoration “to do” list:

Next up on our retro-renovation pink bath project:  We had to replace the original lighted medicine cabinet, which had a cracked mirror and unsafe wiring, with an inexpensive temporary fix out of MDF (ugh!).  Either we will design and build our own wood medicine cabinet or we will find a 1950s one in good condition that fits the hole in the wall. Even if we just find a mirror the right size, we can design the wood cabinet around it. You know we mid-century DIY folks always have to be looking for something.

This story is proof that doing a Retro Renovation can take time and sometimes tweaking initial choices to make the space user friendly, or waiting to find just the right parts make all the difference. Kudos to you Mary Elizabeth for your patience and determination. Your bathroom looks great and you’ve managed to save not only rare original plastic tiles — but also another pink bathroom.

  1. Linda says:

    I live in a 1950s house and love everything about it. My baths are mint green and PEACH (not pink) tiles toilets and tubs. I LOVE the look of my 1950s peach sink with stainless steel legs. Everyone loves the house and it has actually been on the tour of homes for our city. I need some fresh ideas for the peach bath. Some new decorating colors to use. Right now I am using peach and burgundy The walls have been painted chocolate brown. . It’s pretty but would love to do something different for a change. Any ideas?

  2. Geri says:

    Mary & Bruce,
    Fantastic job. I had pink and white floor tile in my bathroom and I always loved it. The realtor in my case did not! If you need an additional renovator’s supply, Urban Miners in New Haven is wonderful. I found a blue toilet seat there for a friend and I recall pink items as well.

    1. Mary Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, Denise. You can come over and use it anytime you need to. Maybe that outhouse on our property line will be gone in spring. Otherwise, we’ll have to fix that up, too!. 🙂

      1. Birgitte says:

        Are you able to link to the adhesive you used with the plastic tile?

        We are moving into a house with a pink and maroon plastic tile bathroom and we are not sure yet what to do. For now, we will reglue the tile. The ceiling is bowing in because of a leak, so we will take the ceiling tile (!) off and use those as spares.

        1. Mary Elizabeth says:

          Birgitte, I can tell you what we used, but I’m not sure it’s the only solution or even the best. Like you, we repaired the loose tiles with the hope of redoing the plastic tile sometime in future.

          We were unable to find a source for the plastic tile adhesive that Sears used to sell with their tile. If anyone else knows what it was and what it is called now, they should comment here. It seems to me that you could use something like this that is meant to glue plastic panels to sheetrock:


          But we didn’t have this on hand, and during much of our renovation we were snowed in and had to use what we had at hand. To replace each loose tile we cleaned it off thoroughly with mineral spirits and wiped it dry. Then we put a generous glob of acrylic latex caulk on the concave back of the tile–not enough to squish out, but enough to make a large sticking surface. Here’s one example of that product:

          The caulk takes 30 minutes or more to dry, so to keep the tiles from traveling while it dried, we put a dab of good quality hot glue–the kind you use for crafts–in each corner of the tile. Then we made sure of the exact position of the tile and pressed it gently into place.

          When everything was done, we did use regular silicone caulk all around the edges of the tub and in the corners in the tub/shower area. Because our tiles were gray, we used gray colored caulk. However, you could use clear caulk just as well.

          Since the loose tiles were in the area of the shower, we made sure not to use the shower for 24 hours. We have been using it every day since for two years, and it is holding up great None of the re-glued tiles and none of those we put on the new section of wall have come off, and we haven’t found any leaks.

          Our tiles also go all the way up and over the ceiling. It must have been a fashion thing back then. Good idea to use the ones you remove to replace missing, stained or broken ones. Let us know how you make out!

          1. pam kueber says:

            Precautionary Pam reminds: There can be vintage nastiness in the layers of our vintage houses. For example, do we really know what’s in those old adhesives we may pull up and disturb??? So be sure to consult with your own properly licensed professionals to assess what you are working with so that you can make informed decisions.

        2. Mary Elizabeth says:

          Birgitte, more information coming. My comment is being moderated while the ladies are at the beach. 🙂

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