How to Update a Victorian Bathroom

Updating to a modern bath without losing the vintage vibe.

Q: Both bathrooms in our 1850s house have wood floors, painted wainscoting and cast-iron tubs. Our budget is limited, but I’d like to update one of the baths by switching the tub for a shower, and replacing a vanity that looks out of place. Any ideas for an affordable update that will keep the period charm? — Jane S., Yorktown


A: “Affordable bathroom update” sounds like a contradiction in terms to me, but Maggie McManus, an interior designer in Nyack ( who specializes in remodeling kitchens and baths, was unfazed. “You can certainly keep the wooden floor and the wainscot paneling,” she responds. “Take the tub out and put in a preformed, double-threshold shower pan. They come in various sizes that fit standard openings. Kohler makes one of cast iron, but they’re typically acrylic that looks like porcelain. They’re sturdy and easy to keep clean.” Prices start at about $230, but McManus advises: “Buy a good quality one — not the cheapest.”

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Keeping the plumbing in the same place helps save money. “The plumbing can be surface-mount with exposed fittings — that’s very traditional in an old-fashioned bath,” McManus continues. “And then you’d only have to tile two walls for the shower — one short one and one longer one…. I’d use a subway tile in a matt white or an off white, and perhaps put a little decorative bar of color. But keep it simple.” Install a pre-made, glass-enclosed shower ($800 and up) and presto! Not something a Victorian homeowner would have recognized, perhaps, but it beats a jug of warm water on a washstand.

“It’s really worth changing out the toilet to a water-efficient one, like the Toto low flush,” McManus adds. Toto makes one chic model that will set you back about five grand, but others can be had for as little as $300.

McManus suggests leaving the wood floor natural, or painting it, if it’s scuffed. “I like a painted finish, and those work well in a bathroom,” she says, noting that porch or deck paints are the most durable, and easy to maintain.

To replace the vanity with something more charming, look for “an old bureau or cabinet, cut the interior out, and add a drop-in sink,” McManus suggests. “You may sacrifice some storage efficiency but you’ll get a look.” If storage isn’t an issue, you could replace the vanity with a console sink that has an old-time feel. “You’re better off buying a modern iteration” than trying to retrofit a vintage sink, she adds.

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