Historical Integrity Meets Contemporary Design

Bathroom remodel
Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Not every house has a story to tell, and not everyone wants to own a house that tells a story. But for those who own a house with historic charm, there inevitably comes a point where you have to ask yourself about incorporating a degree of modernity in an update—a decision never taken lightly. Oftentimes, it’s a matter of value: is the voice of the old space truly worth more than the convenience of a new one?

When it came to a bathroom remodel in a small home on Monroe Street, the question of intrinsic value wasn’t so difficult to answer. Deb Corning, interior designer and general contractor at DC Interiors, says, “[The homeowner] didn’t really want to get rid of anything because of the historic value and charm, but it really needed to be updated.” The house is 100 years old, and some of those telltale signs of aging, like rust in the pipes, were of concern.

Aside from things straying far from code, the size of the space was a bit too cozy. “They probably took a closet and made it into a bathroom at one point,” says Deb. There’s a novelty to a tiny bathroom, but it wears off pretty quick when it becomes part of daily life. Making the space something functional with touches that stay true to the history of the house seemed the best way to give the homeowner what she needed without being too pervasive.

The biggest change came to the shower itself. The homeowner is in her twilight years, so grab bars and handles to assist in sitting and standing were very important. A bench in the shower and another next to the sink bridge continuity throughout the space as much as possible, creating something as seamless as it is practical. Stainless steel and white porcelain ring a timeless color scheme, harkening back to when the house was built, and a half-round grey trim accents the era.

But the shower isn’t stuck in the past. A floor-to-ceiling glass door gives a contemporary touch and provides an openness to the space, eliminating the feeling of claustrophobia inherent in the old bathroom.

Another addition, or rather subtraction, that came from giving an answer to a questionable design choice was shortening the closet. Whoever did the original closet was dead set on storage space, but what actually happened was they created a place for critters to build homes from forgotten cotton balls and buried rolls of toilet paper. Okay, maybe not that bad, but you’d need a flashlight to know for sure. Now the entire closet is accessible without having to climb in.

The closet door and frame both remain honest to the age of the house. Using straight wooden sides with a dropped header feels bold against some of the softer touches, like swooping wall sconces on either side of the vanity and crystal doorknobs on the drawers. The entire space is coherent, but hard to place. Perhaps somewhere between cottage and farmhouse? What really matters is there’s no betrayal to the house.

Monroe Street, itself, has an ancient voice. As Deb worked on the remodel, she learned more of the history. Some of the old boards had dates and historical events written on them, one even alluding to the house being used as a safehouse for immigrants. “The houses on the street have a really deep backyard. It’s in the Monroe Street area, and they’re all pretty much small lots with small houses. And this is a tiny house, but with a big backyard.” It turns out the ice train used to go through the back of the homeowner’s yard, so when the ice-train chapter closed, residents were left with big backyards.

Whether ice trains, a dated stud, or a fresh remodel, the layers of history here are very tangible. Perhaps a less aware contractor may have just gone purely with a trend, but because of Deb and the homeowner’s sensitivity to the past, a transition between layers remains. Most importantly, the new amenities in place will help prevent accidental falls. Owning a historical piece of property is something this homeowner values, and now she can enjoy it with a peace of mind she didn’t have before.

Photographs by Eric Tadsen.

DC Interiors & Renovations
3000 Cahill Main, Suite 215
Fitchburg, WI 53711