In the old days, one was enough when it came to bathrooms

April 06, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

I ASSUME THAT WHEN my great-grandfather moved into a brand new house on Guilford Avenue, he knew what he was doing. With a wife, her mother, five daughters and two sons, he bought big. The house had six bedrooms, long halls and stairways, and one bathroom.

In later years, a second bath was added in the cellar, but that plumbing was used chiefly by our Labrador retriever, who liked a cool drink of water a couple times a day.

Visitors to that house were often struck that such a large household of people had but a solitary upstairs bath. By the time my youngest sister, Josephine, was born (and my great-grandfather long dead), the in-house census had topped out at an even dozen.

And we survived nicely on one upstairs bath.

For a long time, that bath was just that -- a cast-iron, claw-footed tub without a shower, deep enough for long afternoon baths redolent of bath salts. There was a sink and a toilet, of course. The floor was paved in trim little hexagonal (or were they octagonal?) ceramic tiles. The top sash on the one window had a stained-glass top, colored in milky purples and creams. There was a small iron radiator. Its top held a few towels.

It was pretty much like all the bathrooms in the old neighborhood. It was never, never called a powder room. There were a very few neighbors who converted a pantry or had a closet on the first floor made over into what the real estate agents call a half-bath, but we never did. We talked about it. Nothing ever happened.

I can remember times when visitors would grow incredulous at the one bath upstairs for all those people.

"We could have had more. We didn't want them," my grandmother, Lily Rose, told one woman.

To prove her point, she accompanied the visitor on a tour of the more curious parts of the house.

She escorted this woman upstairs to the main second-floor front bedroom, the one whose bay window overlooked Guilford Avenue and a shaky sycamore tree. This was the room where my four sisters, Sis, Mimi, Nan and Josie, then resided.

My grandmother explained that this had been the room where my great-grandparents had lived. It was the room where they died.

She then opened the closet door, a fine piece of mahogany millwork. The two women then inspected the waterless closet that was the envy of many people who visited that house.

It was so big that it had two entrances, one for each of the bedrooms it connected.

It held heavy steamer trunks. They were not Louis Vuitton, but they did carry initials, the big S for the Stewarts, who on occasion were known to board the Atlantic Coast Line for a winter in Florida. They packed their china in flour barrels and prayed not too many dishes got broken on the baggage cars.

Lily Rose pointed to some pipes that ran along one of the walls. "See those," she explained. "They were supposed to be connected to plumbing fixtures. But we said we didn't want any. My father had five daughters who all liked to dress. Big closets were more important than bathrooms."

A few days later I asked my Great-Aunt Cora, who lived in the big third-floor front bedroom, for her version of the plumbing facts. (My 7-year-old inquiring mind wanted to collect various versions of the same tale.)

She got out of her favorite chair, opened her closet door (it was precisely atop the one that sat a floor below) and said, "Mine's even bigger. I got the builder to eliminate the other door," she said.

When I asked about a bathroom, she looked at me as if I should have known better than to ask stupid questions.

"One is enough. I keep it clean," she said. There was no disputing that line. Great-Aunt Cora was a perfectionist in maintaining those white ceramic tiles. They looked like something in the mosaic department of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

While Lily's closet on the second floor had electricity -- a lone electric light that was handy for locating misplaced spring coats and packets of letters preserved for the ages -- Cora's was dark. Her closet obsession was not steamer trunks but hats, nestled in cardboard hatboxes (some had very attractive designs like the Washington Monument or scenes of Fifth Avenue) stacked teeter-totter high.

The only possible source of light was a copper gas jet that projected from the ceiling. It was the sole surviving relic of gas lighting in the house, and Cora refused to have it removed. She claimed it had been capped off so that no one could mistakenly blow up the top floor of the house when searching out an O'Neill's hatbox.

Nobody was eliminating her gas jet, Cora insisted. Where else could she so modestly hang out her hand-washed lingerie and have it completely hidden from public view? Enough said.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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