As such, the bathroom often reflects the mood of the times: When we were repressed and puritanical, so were our bathrooms. When we were infatuated by technology, our bathrooms became showplaces of invention. When our bodies were liberated by the sexual revolution and the fitness craze of the '70s and '80s, our bathrooms became similarly emancipated.
Over the last two decades, the American bathroom has undergone its most radical remodeling yet, from room-in-a-closet to lavish temple for the body. The transformation is a direct result of profound lifestyle changes, particularly among the soaring number of two-career couples, who want space where they can dress efficiently in the morning and lounge comfortably in the evenings.
With a focus on personal gratification during the 1980s, the bathroom suddenly became a less embarrassing topic for Americans, who routinely called it "the room down the hall," says Philadelphia architect John Randolph, president of Design Construction Corp.
"Bathrooms became a place to relax, to have fun, as opposed to just the mechanical function of getting yourself clean," Randolph says. "It has to do with the notion that you can cut yourself off from the world in your own private space."
So, bathrooms today are bigger, glitzier, more personalized. Perhaps the best evidence of the humble room's rising popularity is that even while
families are getting smaller, the number of bathrooms in single-family homes
keeps going up. More than 44 percent of all new homes built in 1991 had 2 1/2 baths or more. That means that the average number of bathrooms in a new house - 2.5 - is approaching the average family size - 2.7 people.
While sharing a bathroom is no longer necessary for some, there are still large families whose members must fight over a single toilet, bath and washstand.
Over the years, the tightly configured, three-fixture bathroom that was standard in every 1950s-era subdivision has been giving way to a roomy indulgence, with separate cubicles for toilets, sinks, showers and dressing. Whirlpools big enough for a romantic twosome on Dynasty have replaced the shallow, miserly tubs of the Father Knows Best years. Windows and skylights now allow light to permeate the cell-like dimness of old bathrooms. Double sinks, well-lighted makeup mirrors, exercise equipment, even the occasional chaise longue have been squeezed into stylish privies. New bathrooms are customized to the smallest detail.
Like many busy, two-career couples, Arthur and K.C. Baldadian once found themselves bumping into each other in the mornings as they stumbled to the shower. No more.
They hired designer Patricia Gorman to renovate the master bathroom of their 75-year-old Wynnewood house. Gorman doubled the size by merging the two small "his-and-her" baths. She opened the new room to the sky and installed the latest in plumbing gadgetry. The double-wide bathroom is sheathed in Rose Aurora marble and boasts a television, tape deck, telephone, remote control
window shades, and intercom.
The shower stall is big enough for a small party. It has a variety of water spouts, from a rain-forest mister to a rotating water scrubber that the Baldadians call the car wash."We joke to people that we spend a lot of time in here," says K.C. Baldadian, a finance consultant who suffers from arthritis.
Such devotion to the bathroom mystifies the construction industry. "We understand why people invest money in a kitchen. Kitchens are where you spend a lot of time with family," says Gopal Ahluwalia, research director for the National Association of Home Builders. "But the bathroom?" This bewilders him. "It costs $8,000 just to put in a modest bathroom."
And yet in the go-go '80s, Americans were slathering their bathrooms in marble and gold-plate. They trucked in $20,000 computer-assisted whirlpool tubs, Italian fixtures that looked more like sculpture than toilet bowls and hand-painted sinks so delicate the buyers were advised not to brush their teeth at them.
"I think Americans have been suckers for glitz since the industrial revolution," observes Gail Caskey Winkler, a design historian and author of The Well Appointed Bath. "The nation has to reinvent social class every generation, since there's no hereditary class." It just so happens that the glitziest bathroom in the house, according to industry statistics, is also the most public: the guest bath or powder room.
Take the powder room in Mort Block's Elkins Park condo. It is the smallest, but most deluxe of the three bathrooms. Converted from a closet, it is intended to serve as the backdrop for one, all-important piece of sculpture: the Sherle Wagner sink. Hand-painted in cobalt blue and gold, adorned with gold-plated fixtures, it rises from its slim base like a fresh tulip. It would not be out of place in a palace. Everything else, from the wallpaper to the tissue box, matches the sink. The effect is hallucinogenic.
Even the last few years of hard times haven't dampened the enthusiasm for elaborate bathroom improvements. The amount spent on remodeling old bathrooms increased almost 2 percent in the last year, according to Kitchen and Bath Business, an industry journal. "The recession is not going to cause the bathroom to return to its old lowly status," argues Nancy Deptolla, a spokeswoman for Kohler Co., a fixtures manufacturer.
To understand where bathrooms are going, it's worth knowing some history.
Just shy of 200 years ago, a successful Philadelphia merchant named Henry Drinker decided to surprise his wife and impress his friends by installing the latest in home technology: a shower. His wife, Elizabeth, was not pleased by the newfangled contraption. For a full year she did everything to avoid taking the plunge; when she finally submitted to the flowing water, it was only as a favor to her husband.
"I bore it better than I expected," she confided to her diary. "Not having been wet all over at once for 28 years past."
It's always been one of the dirty little secrets of our history. For the longest time, Americans did not like to bathe, not even the privileged like Elizabeth Drinker. Even after piped and gas-heated hot water was pumped into middle-class homes later in the 19th century, Americans kept their distance
from the bath.
Americans had imported their aversion to bathing from Europeans, who by the Middle Ages had all but abandoned a practice rich in history. The bath reached a highly developed state during antiquity. The baths at Cnossos remain one of the glories of classical Greece. Emperor Justinian built baths in the farthest reaches of the Roman empire, and the tradition was continued by the Byzantines, who decorated their domed bathhouses with mosaics and marble. Amenities included hot and cold running water.
The communal bath was a focus of classical social life, where people mixed freely to read, to converse, as well as to soak. But such ways were too much for the Christian Church, which was beginning to consolidate its strength in Europe around the fifth century. Communal baths were seen as a vestige of ancient, pre-Christian Rome and places of indulgence, particularly of the sexual kind. St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi both denounced bathing. By the Middle Ages, people were convinced that not only was washing the devil's work, but that it was responsible for spreading the plague.
Only in the mid-19th century, as scientists learned that germs and bacteria were true causes of disease, did bathing begin to get better press. A Philadelphia physician named John Bell first promoted it in a how-to manual in 1850. After John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, declared cleanliness next to godliness, the bath was poised for a comeback. By 1880, bathing in America had been transformed from a suspect cultish activity to a middle-class fad hailed as a sign of refinement.
Turn-of-the-century bathrooms were in extra bedrooms, which meant they were spacious in comparison to later versions. Early bathrooms were equipped with a surprising variety of specialized tubs and showers, along with a toilet and sink, says author Winkler.
From the start, Americans embraced bathrooms significantly more deluxe than European counterparts. American bathrooms were big and full of gadgets. Hot water flowed endlessly.
European bathrooms and bathtubs were smaller because European homes were smaller. Europeans tucked the toilet away in a separate cubicle to make it more accessible, a practical concept that Americans are only now discovering. Europeans managed to squeeze bidets into their privies. Americans never took to bidets, which they initially viewed as a form of birth control.
"Americans have adopted the most lavish form of bath, the plunge tub, and it's getting bigger all the time," Winkler argues. "In Europe there's a careful husbanding of water." Only now are some Americans starting to worry about running short of clean, fresh water. Many homeowners are installing low- flush toilets to conserve water. But at the same time, observes designer John Randolph, none of his clients will agree to a low-pressure shower.
Randolph's concern with nature was the major inspiration for the design of his own bathroom. Taking advantage of 13-foot ceilings in his Center City townhouse, he set out to re-create the feeling of outdoors.
A skylight in the domed ceiling washes the room in natural light. He used color to simulate the outdoors. The recessed whirlpool was tiled in seafoam green to represent the ocean, while the wall colors graduate from white for the air, to pale apricot for the sun, and finally to pale blue on the dome for the night sky. Real vines tumble from the walls and drape over the tub. Now when he showers, he imagines himself in the spray of a rain-forest waterfall, although he's just a few feet from the murky Schuylkill.
Randolph's '80s bathroom anticipates one of the hottest trends of the '90s: the back-to-the-shower movement.
In the new more frugal '90s, he says, the emphasis is shifting from anything-goes excess to a refined pragmatism. In the '80s, the cornerstone of a designer bathroom was the whirlpool tub. But homeowners soon discovered it was time-consuming to fill, wasteful of water and energy, rarely used. "Who has time?" asked Ahluwalia. "I have one. I use it maybe once in three months."
These new showers are not the combination shower-tub of old, but a high- tech shower with its own stall and a variety of shower heads, each with a specific function.
Kohler has just introduced a new prefab unit called "The Master Shower Tower." It has three types of shower heads: a standard head, another that creates a waterfall, and two wall sprays that shoot horizontally. Some shower heads massage your back and rinse shampoo out of your hair. Side vent sprays below shoulder height eliminate the age-old problem of keeping your hair dry.
"Water is a very soothing thing," says Mort Block, who specializes in bathroom designs. "You can have a horrible day, then come home and get into that customized shower and say, 'Do me. Do me. Do me.' "