Updates to vintage homes can preserve historical continuity

Some like to build their own homes. Others want to move into a place that’s recently been built. And for at least a few, the dream home is 100 years old but with solid bones. In every case, however, the time will come to renovate, if only to meet the changing needs and preferences of the homeowner.

It’s those vintage houses that usually present the greatest challenges for redesign. Whether it’s small rooms or inadequate plumbing and electrical systems, there will be problems to solve — which will likely require the services of contractors and specialists.

Today’s technologies can offer big advantages, however. Innovative materials and finishes make renovating easier, faster and more cost effective than ever.

Q: We live in a century-old farmhouse with plenty of bedrooms but only one inadequate bathroom. It would be nice to have a whirlpool-style tub, so we’re thinking of installing one in a spare bedroom that would be converted into a second bathroom. The layout of this small space requires that the tub be placed near one of the corner windows, both of which are only about 21/2 feet above floor level.

Does such a placement make sense? With its platform, the tub will be much higher than the bottom windowsill.

Also, we’d like to maintain the traditional style of the house in the materials and, if possible, the equipment to be installed in this new bathroom. Any ideas?

A: Putting a bathroom fixture so close to a window can present both functional and aesthetic difficulties. They can be resolved, however.

Start by making sure the window is not only properly insulated but also double-glazed. Ensure as well that the new bathroom will have proper ventilation. Since you live in a farmhouse, you’ve probably got good views, so don’t let steamed-up windows make them invisible.

The tub platform must be of a size and shape that allows it to serve as a windowsill that can hold soaps, lotions and other bath items.

Another approach — one more in keeping with the spirit of an older house — is illustrated in the photograph taken from Frank Shirley’s Taunton Press book “New Rooms for Old Houses.” It shows how a second-floor bedroom can be transformed into a spacious bathroom with contemporary amenities and modern equipment while still maintaining a traditional look.

The tub in this model is placed away from a difficult corner. Just imagine how the windows would interfere with a tub or sink in that corner. The arrangement seen here enables the stylish tub to serve as a focal point.

It does have the footed design of a 19th-century fixture, but this is actually a contemporary adaptation of a sort available from many manufacturers.

Please also note the millwork of this setting. The trim, baseboards and wood flooring are the same as what is found throughout the house. With proper coating and finishing, wood can be a highly durable bathroom material.

Rita St. Clair is a syndicated columnist with Tribune Media Services Inc. E-mail general interior design questions to her at

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