During a particularly humid period last summer, some black mold crept into my home’s classic 1930s black-and-white tile bathroom. Luckily, I was able to isolate the problem by ripping out multiple layers of old caulk and prying off mismatched white quarter-round tiles from around the rim of the tub — nearly losing a finger in the process — until I saw no more signs of trouble. I replaced the tiles with black ones I purchased online, and gave the ceiling a good scrubbing and a coat of misty pink high-gloss paint. But even if I’d had to replace everything, I think I would have chosen an exact replica.
I know of many other residents who love their black-and-white bathrooms, as evidenced at last month’s Hyattsville Historic House Tour. I counted at least five homes on the tour with original or close-to-original baths, and when I asked Hyattsville Preservation Association President Gloria Felix-Thompson why they’re still so prevalent, with so many alternative tile options available today, she suggested it’s their versatility that gives them staying power. “It’s very neutral and you can do anything with it,” such as adding an accent color, she suggested. “In the ’60s when the pink and blue bathrooms came in to fashion, you were stuck with it, but with black and white, you can change the look any way you want.”
As special projects coordinator at Community Forklift in Edmonston, Matt Menke frequently helps shoppers looking to bring old bathrooms back to their original glory, including the pink and blue ones. “You’d be amazed at how many shades of aqua and salmon tiles there are,” said Forklift’s resident tile expert. Through its online Etsy shop, the not-for-profit salvage warehouse even ships vintage toilets and sinks in all colors out of state in recycled crates made by Menke.
Pete and Jessica Daniels, who opened their door to recent tour-goers, said they were relieved their two black-and-white bathrooms were not pink when they purchased their house last year. “Black and white is a classic style that retains its appeal,” Pete said. “And the fact is, bathroom makeovers are expensive if you’re not doing it yourself. So why rip up a perfectly functional space if it’s in good shape?”
Emily Strab agreed. She and husband Ted considered a complete do-it-yourself overhaul of their black-and-white bathroom last summer, but settled on patching plaster and replacing broken tiles. “When I started looking at bathroom update ideas on Pinterest and realized that people were putting those same pinwheel and octagonal tiles in their newly built bathrooms, I decided to stick with my original ones,” said Emily. “Digging those tiles out of concrete and [temporarily] losing our only full bath to put in something similar seems silly.”
Menke explained to me that floor tiles in our older homes were usually placed in a solid four- or five-inch layer of mortar, which makes them difficult to demolish. They also crack as joists settle. Finding replacement tiles is no easy feat, and homeowners often end up doing the entire floor in similar black-and-white versions from Home Depot or Lowe’s that mimic the original pinwheel, hexagon and other patterns. But you might get lucky with a perfect match donated to Forklift, or from Morris Tile Distributors, Inc., which has several locations in Maryland and Virginia and carries new matte-finish porcelain styles that more closely approximate the originals, according to Menke.
If maintained well, original bathrooms can even be a selling point with potential homebuyers. “The classic look stands the test of time,” remarked local Long & Foster agent Ann Barrett. “The slight differences between the styles make each interesting. My favorite is the basket weave. They were well-installed in concrete allowing them to last this long.”
One of my favorite bathrooms on the house tour was that of Adam Ortiz and Bridget Pooley, who haven’t changed a thing, including a beveled-edge porcelain sink with exposed plumbing that reminds me of the salmon-colored bath of my childhood home. “We have some minor updates on our list, such as replacing the medicine cabinet above the sink, painting, etc. But we love the look of the original black-and-white bathroom and aren’t planning to change the overall vibe,” said Bridget. And as best as the homeowners can tell, the sink and tub are original to the house, which was built around 1904. “We’ve been in touch with many of the original owners and they all describe the bathroom exactly as it is,” she added. “Lucky us!”
It’s nice to find that so many other residents see the beauty in their old bathrooms, and are willing to preserve their originality as best they can.