Melanie learns to love her vintage bathroom — in a 1962 townhouse designed by I. M. Pei (!)

Not an epic The Hard Way bathroom renovation story. Just a happy little Valentine’s Day love (and decorating) story: Melanie’s “Love the 1962 Bathroom You’re In” story. 


Melanie writes:

Hi Pam,

I think in 2015 you did a story about how we should appreciate what we have instead of wanting what is new all of the time. I commented on that story and perhaps said something about how I h****d my bathroom before reading Retro Renovation, but now I have learned to love it.

My favorite thing about my bathroom is the linen laminate in a beige-tan. It is a small multi-directional pattern that reads as a solid from a distance…so mid-century! The tile in the bathroom is beige-tan with little specks in it. The floor is small random mosaic in two-tone beige and rusty-brown.

I used to spend a lot of time on the internet trying to decide how I would like to remodel this room, even though the tile is in good shape and I wasn’t planning on adding any space or functionality. I just didn’t like it. I came across your blog when I googled “hexagonal tile.” Then I was immersed in your blog for weeks. When I resurfaced, I found myself looking for small random mosaic tile for my floor and for the right kind of laminate for the vanity. When you want to rip out your bathroom to replace it with nearly identical products, it kind of crosses the back of your mind that you actually sort of like your bathroom.

For the bathroom “refresh”, we replaced the towel bar in the shower. The original was rusty. We replaced the bar for the shower curtain. You wouldn’t think it would make a difference, but it was huge. The old one was scratched and rusty. We got new “lavatory legs” for the vanity. The old ones were cracked, had paint splatters and bits of rust.

I got the idea for a forest themed shower curtain from RR. I think you did a post on how to decorate a maroon bathroom. The dark tiles on the floor definitely read brownish maroon. We also got coordinating towels and bathmats.

There is not much storage space in the shower so we added a tension rod shelf (*affiliate link and Pam adds: I also have these in two bathrooms — love them). I definitely got the idea for that from RR.

We also added a towel rack with shelf space. This is not very retro-authentic, but it is utilitarian. Also, we replaced the fan/light. That definitely was added to the to do list after reading about Kate’s bathroom fan.

The original toilet bowl was cracked, so we bought a new one at Home Depot before we moved in. That’s the biggest item that we have fixed in the bathroom.

There is no reason to store anything in the bathroom. The hall closet is just outside. The room was clearly designed for using the bath, sink, toilet and nothing else. It is so utilitarian, that there is only one outlet in the room. It is incorporated into the original light fixture and points up. You have to use a stool to reach it.

There is a small dressing table (glitter laminate) built into a nook in the bedroom for make-up. Clearly the bathroom was meant for taking care of business. Do everything else somewhere else.

Future projects: I would like to have the tub refinished and have the bathroom re-caulked. A previous owner did a terrible job.

Here is a little history on our house: I live near the University of Chicago. In the late 50’s, there was a large development of apartments and townhouses that was built near the University. I.M. Pei was the designer/architect and Harry Weese also worked on the project. Obviously, this was before either of them was a big deal. It is 4 bedroom, 1 1/2 bath house. Currently, we are saving money to expand the 1/2 bath. I’m planning on using small random mosaic tiles on the floor.

Because all of the nearby townhouses were built as part of the same development, you can see some of the other tile options that were available. A friend down the street has the same tile and laminate as mine in her en suite bathroom, but her guest bath has a teal-green tile. It is gorgeous! Someone else has a brick wall that runs through the center of their house, including the guest bathroom. The guest bathroom has pink floor tile to pick up on the pinkish tones in the brick. It is beautiful! This is a color choice that I don’t think anyone would consider today and yet, it is a perfect match to the brick.

Best, Melanie

PS-I put in apple green laminate counters in my kitchen in 2013 (I found them on your blog, natch). Everyone thought I was crazy, now it is the Pantone color of the year. You can be retro and still very, very on trend.

Nicely played, Melanie, nicely played. I went back and found your original comment, in our story “Open Thread: Did you ‘Listen to your house’ before making any changes?” Here is what you said, edited a bit:

When we moved into our 1962 townhouse I really wanted to gut the original master bath. I found Retro Renovation within months of moving in, and I was leaning towards a pink bathroom. I did a lot of online shopping for tile and laminate patterns, and the new bathroom I settled on was the bathroom that I currently had…. Living with the bathroom for a few years saved us thousands of dollars in unnecessary renovations.

Yup. That too. Thanks for sharing your story of bathroom luv. 

  1. LuAnn says:

    Love this story. How fun that you came full circle, Melanie, and realized that you actually loved your bathroom and could work with it. I’m also a big fan of owls and love your shower curtain. ????

    1. Jen says:

      I love this story, too. I think more stories like these would be great for the blog. Though my 1950s house was renovated in the 80s, I sometimes wonder whether I should have just lived with my 1980s kitchens and baths, rather than renovating…

  2. Carolyn says:

    Yeah, that’s Pam (and Kate) for you – they suck you in and the next thing you remember is “…oh, what a wonderful world” MCM is. And there is no cure, which is fine by all of us.
    Nice job and we’re glad you came to your senses after living with your house and listening to what it had to say.

  3. ineffablespace says:

    IM Pei was well-established by 1962: he had projects in Chicago, Washington DC and Philadelphia going around this time. In Philadelphia he designed three residential towers and a series of townhouses. While this project won a competition and there were admirers, generally they were not overly well-received because people didn’t really embrace brutalism-modernism. It took decades before the townhouses in particular were Valued.

    (And even so they are still often valued for their location and floor plans rather than what they look like).

    So there are a couple issues with the survival of the bathrooms and kitchens. Initially, these were built as a part of hundreds of high rise units and dozens of townhouses. Since they were built en mass and on spec, the quality or attention to detail was not quite the same as it would be for an individual house. The second thing is that as the houses aged, since people didn’t really appreciate the architecture, when they replaced bathrooms, they didn’t pay much attention to the architecture.

    So, many of these houses or apartments in my city have replaced bathrooms. And while lately the replacements have been more contemporary and more compatible with the architecture, I would venture to say that none of them look better than what was there to begin with.

    Many of them may actually be better quality than what was originally there, because now the houses are very expensive compared to their original market prices (even taking into account consumer price index). But some of the bathrooms are very inappropriate stylistically, and even the more compatible ones do not really improve on the original in terms of overall appropriateness.

    1. Jay says:

      Pei’s Phila. Society Hill Towers shocked (not considered Brutalism) the city in that they were high rise towers in a low rise district blocks from Independence Hall and were devoid of the city’s traditional brick to boot. Having stood the test of time, they are considered one of the highlights of Edmund Bacon’s historic city redevelopment plan that saw the construction of many unmemorable buildings and public spaces.

      1. ineffablespace says:

        The construction is not “raw” enough to really be Brutalist, sure, but the towers in particular meet the criteria of “Clear exhibition of structure, valuation of materials ‘as found’, and memorability as image”. I think the Towers were earlier recognized as significant and for their beauty, but it took much longer for people to warm up to the townhouses.
        If I recall correctly, IM Pei left the redevelopment project before all intended phases were complete. In any case the town houses on the southern end of the complex were designed by Louis Sauer. They are similar and compatible, but I don’t think quite as successful as the Pei houses.

        As late as the early 2000s I had at least one instructor in design school, (an architect) who liked nothing about the Society Hill complex, mostly stemming it seems like, that the towers and the houses all tend to hide the front door. But I had other instructors who loved the whole thing but disparaged the “Cartoons” as one instructor called them, that were built later on. Kinda modern, kinda faux colonial row houses that were immediately popular with the public because they blended in and had a more traditional appearance, although if you really analyzed them were not really that strong, design-wise.

        Some of the townhouses seemed to have bathrooms and kitchens that were pretty “architect-y” in terms of design intent and finishes, while some of them seemed to display choices that were clearly in the hands of the builder or developer. But I could be mixing up some of the Pei houses and the later Sauer houses.

        I live in a house that was part of the redevelopment of the neighborhood west of Society Hill and the original concept was to be sort of a poor man’s Society Hill but there were different architects and developers in and out of the project and so there’s not a strong identity.

  4. Jay says:

    Another satisfied customer! Pam and RR aims to please. You saw the light. That bath was looked after as the laminate is in good shape and does not appear to have water damage which is usually the reason to replace it. The sink is interesting in that it is set in a box supported by legs instead of a cabinet.

  5. Marie Gamalski says:

    Wow Melanie… I love it, and your tile looks in perfect shape for the age! Sparkling white grout!! Really glad you reconsidered, it looks great and appropriate for the space… neat little vanity area also… ????

  6. Susan Halla says:

    I know a couple who used to live in those townhouses! I always loved their house. They were an elderly couple and have since moved out, but I have such fond memories of visiting them in their home. It was so beautiful! And I never knew that they were I.M. Pei!

    Congratulations, Melanie, on a beautiful bathroom “re-do” without having to really “re-do” anything at all! And thank you most for sharing.

  7. Retroski says:

    Cool story, Melanie. Your bathroom is pretty spiffy.
    And hello to a fellow Chicagoland Retro-renovator! I’ve had the same experience with originally not liking something and learning to love it, thanks to RR.

    Recently I went to an estate sale in the neighborhood I grew up in and was amazed to find the 1968 era house still original! Probably because it’s one of the few original owner homes left and they saw no need to change anything as long as it still worked! The kitchen was intact with light gold laminate counter tops, original cabinets and the ORIGINAL light gold Frigidaire range, dishwasher AND washing machines. And the original cultured marble swirly pink and white sink/counter tops in the bathroom. And all of it well kept and clean.

    They’ve already gotten several offers on the house and my hopes are it will find a new retro-loving owner who won’t do an overhaul. but hard to say.


  8. Nikki says:

    What a lovely bathroom! Melanie, you did a fabulous job pulling together “the look”.

    I grew up in the 60’s with six brothers and sisters using one bathroom and yes, the bathroom was JUST for “taking care of business”. My parents didn’t tolerate “dawdling” in the bathroom.

    I love the dressing table too!

  9. Joe Felice says:

    I always say “If you have things in the room that are in good shape and that you don’t hate, keep those, and use them as inspiration and jumping-off points for the remodel.” This is especially true in bathrooms and kitchens.

  10. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Right on, Joe! Melanie, I love your bathroom and your owl shower curtain. Owls are so 1960s and ’70s–I did a beautiful owl crewel work piece as a gift to a relative during that time, using the colors that are in your shower curtain. I don’t know where it went when the relative died. I suspect her children threw it out because it was “so outdated.” I’m thinking of getting a vintage kit like it (maybe on Etsy) and redoing the picture.

    As you redecorate, think about other themes from the period, such as sun and moon, tarot cards, stylized poppy flowers and daisies.

    And you are right that the old colors come back sometimes as the “new” color of the year. Congratulations for joining the ranks of those who love the house they’re in!

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