Each year, 31 million people come and go at Philadelphia airport - and most head for the bathroom at least once. That's a lot of paper towels, toilet tissue, soap, and flushes.
Last summer, the city-owned airport began renovating the oldest and most heavily used of its 136 restrooms - tearing out dull gray walls and replacing air-handling systems, plumbing, and worn-out fixtures.
"I wanted to see color; I wanted to see something different that made a statement," said Gale, who called the upgrade "a pet-peeve project for me."
Airport officials had a message for the design team, Philadelphia's Kelly/Maiello Inc.: Don't come back with the same boring white and gray bathrooms.
The designers came up with those shiny red ceramic tiles and energy-efficient lights, as well as red and green glass tiles, sconces between the mirrors over the sinks, and an earth-tone accent wall. Automated hand dryers cut down on the use of paper towels.
"We were first and foremost looking to make them really bright, really splashy, really classy," said architect Vincent Maiello.
"We also had the task to make them very durable, using the right materials," Maiello said. "We worked closely with the airport to determine how we were going to wash hands and dry hands" without water dripping on counters and "how much privacy in the water-closet booths."
For many travelers, airport bathrooms are an introduction to the city. The goal was to make them "welcoming areas for Philadelphia," he said.
Meryl Levitz, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., said the hospitality industry used to hear, " 'Hey, we love your city, but for one glaring problem.' "
Complaints would either be about taxicabs or the airport, Levitz said, and the frequent gripe about the airport was "parking" or "bathrooms" and, in the mid-2000s, US Airways' baggage-handling troubles.
"We haven't heard any of those complaints in a very long time, four years at least," she said.
For the walls outside the spruced-up restrooms, artwork was commissioned. One effort had local artist Benjamin Volta working with students from Grover Washington Jr. Middle School in the city's Olney section. Their Tectonic Quilt was the students' artistic interpretations of maps, flags and political borders.
Last week, passengers generally gave the new-look bathrooms a thumbs-up.
"They are terrific, nice and roomy, and no standing and waiting for stalls to be empty," said Helen Breese of West Chester, who was returning from Marco Island, Fla.
"It was all tastefully done," said Wayne Lensu, en route from New York City to Chicago. "I like the staggered tile, where they are not all completely flat. Nice."
Jennifer Eby, a pharmaceutical-meeting planner from Fort Washington, was critical of the women's restroom she visited, with paper on the floor and an out-of-service toilet.
"They are nice, but they are still dirty," Eby said. "They are very pretty. They are just not maintaining them well. That's my opinion."
The airport said it was working on getting the right custodial staff in place to handle the volume of traffic coming through, starting with a 6 a.m. rush of flights.
"It's about staying on top of the general condition and appearance all throughout the day," Gale said. "We've asked for our custodial teams to go in as frequently as possible to do quick cleanups, and make sure bathrooms are well stocked and all the fixtures in the facility are working."
The airport will soon begin the second phase of bathroom renovations, said Maiello, whose firm received an amended contract to start the design. From how the first bathrooms are used, he said, planners hope to learn which changes to make in the next phase.
"One of the issues at first was water dripping on the counters and the hand dryers were blowing it back into the customers' laps," Maiello said. "I also noticed, in a couple bathrooms, the maintenance people have a garbage can in the corner, at the entry. We'd certainly prefer that not be, but they may have found that we don't have enough receptacles for the paper, or maybe they are in the wrong place.
"Things like that, we hope to learn from the first phase and make it better in the second."
Contact Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or email@example.com.