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The Results

Photo by Ellen McDermott

It’s true what they say about childbirth and renovations: Once you see the final product, you fall in love, and all memory of pain and prolonged labor evaporates.

Mood Enhancer

Photo by Ellen McDermott

Still, I have no problem resurrecting the moment I wanted to punch out our general contractor, “Boris,” a smooth-talking prevaricator who had found me after I registered at a well-known referral agency and got phished by a less savory site (neither is willing to say how this happened). “Six weeks, max,” he promised.

Shown: This surprise find helped drive the decor while preserving our boomer dignity: It may look like cheery artwork, but it’s a grab bar. Goes well with the vintage lion print, which we acquired around the time of Woodstock.

Grab bar: Honeycando

Shuffle Right In

Photo by Ellen McDermott

My husband, Irwin, and I, as longtime owners of a Manhattan apartment, are not exactly remodel novices, never mind newlyweds. Yet one simple bath redo nearly led us to the madhouse—by way of divorce court.

It was the tile store that drove us apart. A shared fear and loathing of Boris’s handpicked cabinetmaker thrust us back together.

Shown: We loved the look and ease of a frameless, curbless shower. No one told us how heavy those doors are or how hard it is to make them leakproof. The floor proved tricky, too.

Tip: See if a marble rolls toward the drain before you put down tile.

Shower doors: Frameless Shower Doors

Climate Control

Photo by Ellen McDermott

A streetwise Russian transplanted to Brooklyn, “Sergei” will forever be remembered for brushing off queries about our nuanced storage needs (“and if we could just have a custom niche for our electric toothbrushes...”) while wildly texting another customer. “I haff to go,” he announced ominously, tucking our deposit into his wallet. “Need to collect some money.”

He never did build our vanity—too busy with some bigger client—but Sergei, if you are reading this, really, no problem, keep the deposit.

The tile store, as serene as a French cathedral, provided a different kind of challenge. I had entered with a vision of the mirror-flat 1920s subway tile I grew up with. Up and down the aisles we went, pausing to check out the latest subway tile iterations, of which there are now approximately 15 dozen. “Look at this,” I exclaimed before a shrine to beveled rectangles with an artful crackle glaze. “It says Antique White, but isn’t this color closer to Mouseback? I wonder if Steel Gray grout would go best with it, or if it’d be nicer with Aluminum.”

Shown: Our old bath had one of those round safecracker-style dials that controls both shower temperature and volume. We sprang for a thermostatic valve that allows you to preset the temperature. A lever controls the flow. Sweet!

Shower valve: Ferguson

Splash Happy

Photo by Ellen McDermott

Irwin, looking rather steely himself, had a different vision: to get out of there as fast as possible. A chance to squander his remaining time on earth studying the fine points of wall tile, not to mention the selection of marble hex floor tile I found one aisle over? He’d rather shoot himself—or, rather, me.

The last time we had renovated a bath, we were so young and clueless that we closed our eyes and ordered ivory with apricot accents (very ’80s). We spent not a minute contemplating how high the tile should go on the sink wall or how wide the grout lines should be, two issues you could spend a lifetime debating these days. Louie the tile setter made all the decisions, and a good thing, too. He was pressed for time, we later learned, because he was on work release from prison.

Shown: A bath redo involves maybe 1,283 decisions; that’s why normal people hire a designer. One of us—let’s call him Seal Boy—had strong feelings not about robe hooks or wall tile but about sink size: I ordered the biggest one I could find.

Bathroom sink: eFaucets


Photo by Ellen McDermott

So you think you’ve seen and survived it all and you finally know what you’re doing, but it’s more like you know too much, a lesson I learned while surfing the Web for a vanity we could buy online.

The Web! That bottomless—pardon the pun—sinkhole for the indecisive. Soon I was mired in options, each one requiring a dozen clicks to learn such basics as the number of dental-product cubbies. To this day, I’m being chased around the Web by one vanity whose subdivided soft-close drawer compelled me to linger just long enough to suggest a serious relationship.

Shown: Once I set eyes on this soft-gray honed-marble tile—in Light Bardiglio—there was no turning back. The tile store was a little vague about the details. Turns out it has to be sealed before installation. Also after installation. And every year after that.

Floor tile: Nemo

DIY Touch

Photo by Ellen McDermott

When I finally staggered to checkout, I assumed our standard-issue vanity would arrive, well, the next day. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? It might have been faster to sign up for a woodworking class and make it myself.

Our little bath redo, having already stretched from three weeks to three months, now became the demented crew’s plaything. On a typical day, a lone worker would show up at noon, hammer noisily for an hour or so, then leave for a cigarette break—back in Brooklyn.

Shown: Hanging the floating vanity was a challenge. To accommodate the drainpipe, we had to lower the box and raise the sink top by adding a matching oak collar. By then, the GC was long gone.


Shower Storage

Photo by Ellen McDermott

Push came to shove when the vanity finally arrived and the crew leader tried to hang it, only to realize he’d positioned the waste pipe so low the sink top would have to be at thigh level. After a lot of energetic sawing and swearing, he managed to get the vanity onto the wall—with glue. Then he left for a cigarette break.

As we tiptoed into the half-finished room and bellied up to our mail-order washbasin, we couldn’t help noticing that it was not only well above waist level but also crooked.

I’m telling you this long New York story because it has a happy ending. Irwin manfully paid off the Russians. “It’s only money,” he informed me (“only!?”), and took charge, aided by a Senegalese handyman he had met at the hardware store. A natural team—Irwin had spent his formative years in Senegal—they pried the vanity off the wall and MacGyvered a fix.

Shown: Our personal-care arsenal is hidden in a niche tucked behind one wall in the shower area. The DIY shelves—tilted to discourage pooling—were fashioned with Plexiglass and metallic-looking plastic trim.

Plexiglass and trim: Canal Plastics Center

Wall-Hung Heat

Photo by Ellen McDermott

Within days, everything was, if not perfect, then close enough, and when we gazed at the sink top floating at perfect height over our marble hex tile floor, it was indeed like falling in love. We keep going in there to admire our baby.

Not that this has stopped me from clicking on ads for grab bars and towel warmers. “It’s like staying on after you’ve found a husband,” one friend pointed out.

And who knows, we may need another vanity some day, should we decide to tackle our guest bath, which is, come to think of it, looking rather dated. Consider all we’ve learned. We couldn’t possibly make the same mistakes again—right?

Shown: A wall-hung hot-water radiator replaced our old baseboard unit. In winter it makes pleasant gurgling noises and warms towels hanging on a rack just above it (not shown).

Radiator: Hudson Reed