Friday, June 18, 2010

My Favorite Room at Clermont: The Bathroom

One of my favorite rooms in any historic house is the bathroom. I can't help it! According to Wiki Answers, the average modern American spends about two hours in the bathroom per week. So you can see that this room has become very important to all of us. But of course, indoor bathrooms were not always part of our lives.

On a normal day, a tour of Clermont includes a look at the large sky blue bathroom beside the front guest bedroom. Installed in the late 19th century, this bathroom looks pretty familiar: large claw-foot, iron tub, marble sink, toilet with a tank and pull-chain above it.

But many people are surprised to learn that this bathroom is only one of ten at Clermont. Well--at my last count it was ten anyway. Little tiny bathrooms are tucked into every corner of this house, and every once in a while a dispute opens up (people say anywhere from 9 to 11), and we have to go around counting them all again. Whatever exact number you arrive at, most people are quite surprised to hear that all of these bathrooms are present in a house not updated since the 1920s.

The Livingstons were a little late to embrace indoor plumbing. Our bathrooms weren't installed until the late nineteent century, with the first few being possibly around 1883. Additional bathrooms were added in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, at Lindenwald (the Martin Van Buren home in nearby Kinderhook) boasted two water closets when the house was remodeled all the way back in 1849. One of Lindenwald's, including an attractive porcelain bowl, is pictured at right.

So you might think that John Henry certainly took his time getting around to installing this new luxury. There are a few indications that he may have been slow to adopt new inventions in general: he refused to allow automobiles at Clermont until he purchased one for himself in 1917. However, retro-fitting plumbing into Clermont's 2 1/2 foot thick stone walls may have slowed the process. To solve this problem, plumbing was run all over the house on the outside of interior walls, making plumbing a very visible part of the interior space.

John Henry was only ten years behind Frederic Church's bathroom just up the road. Prior to building his grand mansion, he and Isabell lived in a cottage where they family continued to use the outdoor privies and chamber pots that had been common practice for well over a century. When he constructed Olana in 1870-74, a family bathroom was installed as part of the process, along with a half-bath in the cloak room (historic urinal pictured at right). A pink marble sink completes this facility just outside the door and is still visible while you are on tour. Later, Church also installed another full bathroom when he added his studio 1888-1890.

Apparently John Henry couldn't get enough of construction since he added at least one bathroom in 1883, almost ten years after completing a large construction project that added a third and fourth floor to the house. His account books show this and an 1893 addition of bathrooms in conjunction with another large construction project that updated the drawing room and added four bedrooms in the new second and third floors of the south wing.

Three bathrooms, serving four bedrooms, are still located in this wing. An image of its Dutch Colonial Revival wallpaper is shown above at left. The image below also shows the southeast corner bedroom as it appeared in 1965, with the reflection of its private bathroom just visible in the mirror on the door at right.

Clermont's bathrooms might also be though by some to be a little plain in comparison with his neighbors'.

Indoor privies in this era could get quite fancy. Church's 1888 studio wing bathroom features an exquisitely decorated sink and fine wood paneling (pictured at right). And Martin Van Buren's flushing privy shown above featured a highly decorative toilet bowl.

At Clermont, every bathroom features sterile white procelain and cold gray marble. The only bathroom with any fixture to draw attention to is actually on the third floor and was used by servants. Here, lurks a tiny bathroom (located in the middle of the building where it requires a skylight and translucent glass to get any light in there at all) with a fancy toilet--all ornamented with Baroque flora and a Greek key along the top edge. All the rest feature the plain fixtures you saw in the large blue bathroom pictured above.

Perhaps it is a feature of their late addition to the building. Several were added after Alice Livingston married John Henry in 1906, at a time when bathrooms and other began to reflect a particular concern for the appearance of hygeine. Take for instance the circa 1920 image I borrowed from the 1912 Bungalow Blog. These plain surfaces were easy to wipe down, and the cleanliness becomes a visible feature. The growth in popularity of tile helped to minimize the presence of mold and mildew in bathrooms, probably a constant battle in bathrooms full of absorbant wood paneling.

The positioning of Clermont's bathrooms is the last bit of interest I'll point out before I stop this rather rambling entry. Unlike many contemporary vernacular homes built during the early 20th century, John Henry associated all but one of his bathrooms directly with a specific bedroom (or in some cases two bedrooms). At the time, the idea of a bedroom for every bathroom was uncommon, as one or ocassionally two, tended to serve every person in the household.

John Henry appears to have anticipate modern day however, with almost every bedroom getting its own bathroom. In fact, only one "family" bathroom could be entered by guests or family without first having to cross someone's bedroom (this is again the blue bathroom I mentioned first). The other five family bathrooms are all located with entrances in private spaces. And all but one bathroom are located on the second or third floor. In fact, it apparently became so important to have a private bathroom space, that rather than risk sharing the large bathroom below with guests, Alice installed a half-bath immediately beside it.

This larger bathroom could be entered from either Alice's bedroom or the guest room in the front of the house. At some point, a tiny water closet was installed right next to it, with the effect being that two bathrooms can be entered from Alice's bedroom.

Servants were not permitted to use the family bathrooms and instead had their own. Three full bathrooms were installed to serve their seven bedrooms on the third floor. To prevent them from having to make the long trip up about 30 stairs for every "call of nature," one half bathroom was also provided for them near the kitchen.

So the story of Clermont's many bathrooms is a long and confusing one. With so much space being devoted to bathrooms here, many have had their fixtures enclosed by cabinetry so the rooms can safely be used for storage.
Nevertheless they remain an historic curiosity and a clue to the daily experiences of people's lives. From the separate hot and cold faucets (still troublesome to modern users who face the choice between burning their skin or freezing it when washing their hands) to the large tubs instead of showers, it's little things that people took for granted, and still do, that fill up the background of our days and make life what it is.


  1. It seems New Yorkers took bathrooms for granted LONG before the rest of the world and even the USA took the concept of having a bathroom in the house. NY'ers seem to have enjoyed all the modern conveniences LONG before everyone else did. Why is that?

  2. Good question! Flushing toilets and indoor plumbing started to slowly make its way into American households in the mid-nineteenth century--but primarily amongst wealthy individuals. MOST of the population or New York was still using the good, old-fashioned "necessary" or outhouse combined with a chamber pot when the situation called for it. I suspect that indoor bathrooms might be found at other wealthy homes at these early dates (I know of one from the 1860s in a Montreal historic home, and Philadelphia got its first water works in the 1790s), though issues of rural vs. urban may play into the availability of such systems.

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