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Preserve the pink: How to enhance the retro bathroom's charm
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Preserve the pink: How to enhance the retro bathroom's charm

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If you've lived in a house or apartment building in St. Louis that was built in the 1940s or 1950s, chances are good that you have had a pink bathroom.

A vast array of ceramic tile combinations from pink and black to pink and green to just plain pink, as well pink toilets, sinks, baths and vanities, were the height of home fashion in the postwar era. While fans of more contemporary décor are quick to tear apart these cotton candy bathrooms in favor of a more "updated" look, a growing number of fans are choosing to embrace the retro style of their homes, pink bathrooms and all, playing up their unique features and restoring them to their original glory.

Pam Kueber, a Massachusetts-based blogger who has come to be known as the "galaxy's foremost expert on vintage pink bathrooms," says the fascination with the lively color can be traced back to former first lady Mamie Eisenhower. According to Kueber's kitschy site, SavethePinkBathrooms.com (a spinoff of her DIY blog RetroRenovation.com), Mamie Eisenhower loved the color so much that she redecorated the private quarters in the White House in pink — so much so that reporters called it the "Pink Palace," and the bathroom in her Gettysburg retirement home was pink down to the cotton balls. For this reason, the color was often referred to as "Mamie Pink."

Kueber says the popularity of pink, along with classic 1950s colors such as turquoise, chartreuse and candy apple red, reflects the exuberance of the postwar era. A couple of years ago, she let readers of her Retro Renovation blog go into a rant about the demolition of vintage pink bathrooms they saw on cable home remodeling shows. "It wasn't just that they were gutting the pink bathroom," she says, "it was that it was being done with a kind of evil glee — sledgehammers swinging with great disdain."

The rant led Kueber to delve more into the history of the pink bathroom. "I knew they were popular, but I wanted to know why," she says. "So I started the Save the Pink Bathrooms mini-campaign and page because I understood how ubiquitous they were and that they in fact had a great history. The site may be tongue-in-cheek, but it shows that pink bathrooms deserve our respect. Postwar homes have many traits worth preserving, and that recognition has only grown and grown."

Kirkwood resident Michelle Roberts adores the pink tub, toilet and vanity (accented with green tile) in her 1955 home in the historic Craig Woods subdivision. "I never considered pulling out the pink tub and toilet. That would be blasphemy!" she says. But she admits, "I knew I wanted to give the room an overhaul." She saw a few articles on decorating with black and thought the bathroom would be a great place to try it, so she painted the walls black in a bold statement.

"The black paint was the most dramatic way to show modern design flair while remaining true to the vintage bones of the bathroom," Roberts says. "I love the results. It brightens the green tile and pink tub and brings out the vintage feel of the bathroom, and because of the skylight, it's not too dark."

City resident Stacie Gwiazdowski says the small, pink-tile bathroom in her early 1940s bungalow is her favorite room in the house. She played upon the kitsch of the era with a hula girl theme, complete with hula girl shower curtain, soap dispenser and framed vintage postcards she bought on Ebay.

In an economy where money is tight and most families are looking to save rather than spend, it makes good sense to embrace an older home's original craftsmanship and make what is old seem new again. Many homeowners are also coming to understand the value of renovating older homes in a way that respects their original architectural style.

"If you have a 1,110-square-foot 1950s bungalow, it is somewhat of a disconnect to rip out an old tile bath to replace it with marble and granite," Kueber says. "There is a real unpretentiousness and modest charm about these houses that, if you can get your head around it, is very cool."

Fueled by the popularity of period films and TV dramas such as "Mad Men," more folks are embracing that "cool" and gobbling up retro looks from fashion to furniture to home décor. You don't even need to have a vintage pink tile bathroom to get the look in a more modern way. Several manufacturers of modern bathroom fixtures offer brand new lines that pay homage to the pink palaces of the past. Laufen's "Mimo" line offers an eco-friendly collection of modestly sized sinks, toilets, vanities and a bathtub with a retro-inspired interlocking circle pattern that is available in bright pink as well as black and white.

If you do choose to make the most of your home's vintage pink bathroom, Kueber's Savethepinkbathrooms.com provides great inspiration from other retro renovators, as well as a comprehensive list of resources for vanities, sinks, tubs and even vintage "Mamie Pink" tiles, which can still be purchased from B&W Tile based in California (bwtile.com).

"I've received hundreds of messages and comments from people who say they went to Google to find out how to update or tear out their old pink bathroom, then found my site and were inspired by what they saw," Kueber says. To date, more than 500 people have taken her online pledge to Save the Pink Bathrooms and share theirs with the world.


Bathroom reading

• It is estimated that some 5 million pink bathrooms went into the 20 million-plus homes built in the United States between 1946 and 1966.

• Evolutionary biologists hypothesized and have followed up with studies showing that a preference for pink may actually be hard-wired into women's brains.

• Pink is a great color for bathrooms because the reflected glow makes you look younger and healthier. Photographers seem to like pink for the same reason.

• Pink bathrooms faded from popularity beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s due to changes in design taste as exuberance faded in the face of the Cold War and other sobering national events.

Source: Savethepinkbathrooms.com

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