News & Politics

Bathed In Luxury

A century ago, many Americans didn’t have indoor plumbing. Since then, bathrooms have become grand, often with heated floors and double sinks. Here’s how bathroom design has changed—and where it’s going.

“When people see my place, all they want to talk about are the bathrooms,” Dr. Terry Gerace says with a smile.

He is standing in the Dali bathroom on the top floor of a townhouse he has been renovating into a bed-and-breakfast and family home. To his right is a Kohler whirlpool tub with views of a flat-screen television in the bedroom and—through a circular window the size of a Volkswagen bug—of the rooftops of Dupont Circle.

From a quarter-size hole in the ceiling, water streams through the air to fill the tub. On Gerace’s left is a Hansgrohe freestanding shower “column.” A Toto toilet/bidet comes with a heated seat. The marble floor tiles are heated, too.

Iridescent blue glass tiles rise up the walls. A ceiling mural features blue sky and puffy clouds that float into the bedroom, where melting clocks and errant tree branches pay tribute to Dali, the Spanish surrealist.

Gerace paid equal attention to the other five guest bathrooms in his new Artists Inn Residence, which also serves as a residence for Gerace and his parents.

There’s a chandelier in the Katharine Hepburn bath; a silver-plated punch bowl-turned-sink in the Mozart; a Tile­Vision flat-screen TV built into the wall in the Duke Ellington; matching sinks reclaimed from an Italian villa in his parents’ bath.

“A spacious bathroom is a terrific luxury,” says Gerace, a volunteer physician at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in DC and a novice innkeeper. “It’s the place where you start every day, so why not do that peacefully, with a little grandeur?”

With this philosophy, Gerace is in good company. When food writer M.F.K. Fisher was planning what she called her “last house,” in California’s Sonoma Valley, she told the architect she wanted three large rooms. One was to accommodate a kitchen, antique tables, chairs, sofas, and books. Another would act as both bedroom and workroom. In between, almost equal in size, was her bathroom. The floors were shiny black tile, and the walls, painted Chinese red, were decorated with a changing array of artwork—including works by Dillwyn Parrish, the second of her three husbands. There was a big tub with claw feet, a shower, and a rocking chair.

While few might copy Fisher’s floor plan, in today’s homes a feeling of luxury requires space. Some of the new so-called necessities: dual sinks, oversize tub, heated floor, a combination toilet/bidet, a shower with multiple showerheads in the ceiling and walls, walk-in closets and dressing areas, and, increasingly, a stylish urinal.

The evolution from the days of bedroom chamber pots to the 21st-century bathroom has been long and slow.

Bathing was once a communal activity. The public bathhouse has long been a community standard in Asia. But it was the Romans who perfected the craft; according to the Web site, by the third century bc, baths with separate rooms for damp and dry heat and hot and cold tubs were in the villas of wealthy citizens. For hundreds of years, people frequented hot-spring baths throughout the Roman Empire in such places as Bath, England, and Aix-les-Bains, France. They still do.

Bathing was not done so much for hygiene but as ablution—a religious obligation to wash away stains the devout felt they accumulated through daily life. They sometimes were washing away germs after contact with death or disease.

The industrial revolution of the 19th century brought job seekers into cities across Europe and America. With the concentration of humans—and their waste—came disease.

In response to this health threat, officials created citywide sewage systems, and inventors created the flushing toilet. The future was set in motion.

First called “wash-out water closets,” these new flushing toilets began to be added to homes and apartment buildings. Bathing, too, started to become a private or family affair. The communal bathhouse began to fade.

In 1853, while Franklin Pierce was president, a permanent bathtub was installed in the White House. The residence got an early type of flush toilet in 1801—it was one of the first things Thomas Jefferson had installed, according to the White House Historical Association.

Outside of cities, land was still plentiful enough for people to have outhouses. Farm families continued to observe the Saturday-night bath well into the 20th century. A tin tub was brought into the kitchen, filled with water from the wood stove, and each family member took a turn.

The global influenza pandemic after World War I, which claimed more than 600,000 lives in America, spurred a heightened need to be clean, to prevent disease from spreading. Home­owners started bringing the bathroom indoors and had to find space. In large homes built before the turn of the last century, a bedroom could be co-opted. The result: Early bathrooms were often very large.

Between 1875 and 1925—as indoor plumbing became more available—the American attitude toward modesty changed. “What were once communal and family activities,” to quote, “have became very personal and private.”

By the 1920s, building codes required bathrooms in all new single-family homes. The new requirements added to the cost of building modest homes, and it wasn’t long before bathrooms got smaller. But an industry was born, spurring builders and designers to improve the amenities of the bathroom.

Thomas Twyford built the first vitreous-china toilet in 1885, which, according to, inspired competition from other English potteries such as Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. Today’s bathroom buyer can consider, among scores of toilets and bidets, the Aquariass, a fully functioning 22-by-14-by-9-inch acrylic fish tank that fits on the back of standard toilets.

Terry Gerace’s own bath, in his apartment in the Artists Inn Residence, includes a bidet with a panel of controls on the wall and a motion-sensor-activated urinal. “As a doctor, I am happy because the bidet and urinal are very sanitary,” he says. And green, he says, as a modern urinal uses less water than a low-flow toilet. Water isn’t the only thing it saves. “I call the urinal the marriage saver,” Gerace says. “It eliminates arguments over leaving the seat up.”

The first permanent bathtubs were made of wood and lined in metal. In 1883, John Kohler, a name now synonymous with bath fixtures, applied an enamel coating to one of his company’s horse troughs. The rest is history.

Manufacturers now offer whirlpool tubs, walk-in corner tubs, replicas of antique clawfoot tubs, clear-glass tubs, and Japanese soaking tubs so deep they include benches. Mr. Kohler probably never imagined his name appearing on the side of an air-jet massaging bathtub the size of a queen bed in the middle of a loo dedicated to Salvador Dali.

White was the color of choice in many early bathrooms because people wanted their homes to mimic the sterility of a hospital. Then people started designing baths with the idea that they were just as important as a bedroom or kitchen.

First came wallpaper with abundant patterns. In the 1960s and ’70s, people turned to gold and avocado-colored paints. According to Jaime Stephens, head of Alexandria’s Color Marketing Group, “earth tones will be the trend for 2007, but not the earth tones of the ’70s. We’ll see blues from the sky and water, and softer, more botanical greens inspired by nature. Beiges, browns, and tans will be more earthy, reflecting the colors of stone and soil. For a punch of color, you’ll see deep, rich ethnic reds and warm oranges.”

These days, choosing a color is just one design task. In her booklet “The Definitive Guide to Designing the Perfect Bath,” Barbara Sallick, cofounder of the Waterworks bath-fixture and linen shop in Georgetown, includes a page of extras to consider before renovating. She suggests music—maybe an iPod port or small radio—and possibly a small refrigerator because, she writes, “I’ve recently read that makeup stays fresh longer if it’s refrigerated.” To be truly extravagant, she recommends adding a fireplace. “It should be gas operated for ease and use,” she adds.

More homeowners are adding their own touches. Bobbie Medlin, who owns a jewelry boutique in Georgetown, moved to Washington a year ago and bought a big 100-year-old house that needed renovation. For the master bath, she says, “we used the space from a long narrow closet to add two sinks and a washer and dryer under the bathroom counter. My husband was incredulous that I wanted such a thing, but our bedroom is on the third of four floors; it was up and down with laundry all the time. It makes perfect sense.”