Permanent Investment

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There’s really no gussying it up: In 2016, a year of political disasters and other just plain bad-year stuff, the residents of Flint, Michigan were forced to use filtered or bottled water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Let’s not rehash the crisis here, but it’s enough to say that residents were saddled with poisonous, dangerous water through no fault of their own. This catastrophe was the fault of lawmakers, utility operators and especially the politicians of the state of Michigan. Our elegant lady can primp all she wants but the reality of everyday life sits right next to her: Michigan let Flint down. Big time. (image: 1938 Crane “For the Home of Today” catalog)

In 1949 Crane Company asked readers of its catalog to remember that “Your bathroom fixtures represent a permanent investment.” And customers were indeed contemplating a major life investment, whether it be the actual toilet and sink, or a house outfitted with a bath already completed.

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The permanence of these tiled porcelain wonders is, in light of the water crisis, almost painful to see. The water supply harmed children and adults — the “permanent investment” of water treatment fell short. The future of the city has been jeopardized for the sake of minor, temporary savings. But the bathrooms — built to last — stand testimony. I’m serious here: that tile work, those American-made bathroom fixtures, aren’t going anywhere. You will have to tear them out, gut the room, plunder the entire place. (image: 1940 Crane “Plumbing and Heating for the Modern Home” catalog)

When I look at the real estate slide decks of houses on the market in Flint today, I see a brave spirit at work even when the house is neglected. But like this sunny black and yellow room, most baths are well-maintained and have sweetly dealt with the challenges of original fixtures that refuse to budge.

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So, what are we actually looking at? The original pieces are still in place: the black and yellow glossy tile, lined up just right to the edge of the original tub. The toilet is original as well, and so is that inset toilet paper holder. The narrowly shaped, slim tub faucet, handles and stopper also appear to be original (we’ll see that these are fairly common in Flint homes), while the shower head, shower curtain rod, hook and clear thin shelves are all attempts to modernize the space. And in the tub are lined up rows of bottled water.

This same house has a second bathroom, this one done up in burgundy and pink tile work.

Oh, this is a joy. Let’s catalog the original pieces first: again, a masterful tile job — look at those pink tiles on the corner edge- — take a look at that lovely inset soap holder. The original tub is close to the Crane Neovogue “Diana” bathroom line of 1949. The tub is brilliantly clean with not a speck of mildew blemishing the grout. The sink and toilet are, of course, original and match the sink. And the wonderful pink plastic soap dish, the matching dixie cup dispenser, and even the pink liquid soap bottle from a few years ago. A proud homemaker at work here. And one who knows to work with what you have — pink. Everything at the ready, and everything to be used with water. But that bottle and the yellowing stain in the sink remind us that, in this city’s case, water is the problem.

Here’s one of those corner tubs available through the mid-1960s (this one from 1940). Most major bath companies offered these in different models.

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And here’s a view of the other side of the bathroom, revealing the same tub handles, stopper, and tub faucet as the prior bath. We get another glimpse of that precise, tidy tile work, and the gleaming cleanliness of the whole room.

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Here’s a blue and pink scheme, probably a few years later than Mr. Burgundy and Pink. Dang, people! We have the same corner tub, now in peachy-pink. The narrow pink band of tiling is inset just so; we have spotlessly gleaming inset towel rod, the same lovely handles and tub faucet, and tucked into the wall a narrow inset soap dish.

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And more eye candy on the opposing side of this tiny bath. Yes, the light fixtures are new but the original sink is in place, and yes, that faucet has a little matching hoodie of sorts.

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Here’s one version of that sink, this one the “Marcia” from a 1949 Crane catalog. And we have an original toilet, hanging on for dear life with its cheap replacement set and cover, but those blue inset soap dishes are perfectly aligned with the edges of the sink, and there’s a beautiful mosaic tile floor. My heart sings at the careful alignment of the row of checkerboard that just goes right to the edge of the pink toilet base.

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The image below is the only photograph of a bathroom in this particular house. Again, let’s catalog what we are looking at. In the late 1980s someone put up wallpaper, an oak mirrored cabinet, and bought themselves a new light fixure, towel ring and hand towel. And they seem to have replaced the toilet, sink and hardware. Okay, but you can’t subdue a good tile bath! The original light pink/peach tiling remains behind the sink, and then there’s that tiled baseboard; that fake-tiled vinyl flooring is probably sitting over a peach and black tiled mosaic floor. And the gleaming side-mounted vent fan, displaying in all its chromed curves the mid-20th century roots of this home.

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One house boasted two extraordinary bathrooms. This blurry image from the Zillow posting hints at the room: beautiful ombre tile with a narrow band of black and white tiling. The tub is original although the faucet handles appear new. The green wall tile is so well done: look closely at that raised edging of green. And then, the separate shower with its beige tile (probably original and put in at the same time as the tub).

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And here’s the other side of this large bathroom. The tiling continues, neatly framing built-in wood cabinets. The sink is beautifully made, solid. You can just make out that the room is edged at the floor with the same green raised-edge trim that outlines the upper part of the tiling. Even the modern light fixtures can’t hide the glam permanency of this room.

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The same house has perhaps the single best tiled bathroom I have ever seen in a listing from Flint. First, look at that tiling! Pompeii! A mix of colors, sizes, and patterns, arranged to extraordianary effect. And then there’s the stepped throne of faucet, handles and inset soap dish. The curved line of the backing of the tub. And the alignment of the ombre pattern on the blue tile so you have a little triumphant fan shape at each join line.

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Here’s the second pic from this bathroom, which becomes more interesting. It sure does appear the bathroom is…. curved. The walls are curved! Once more, the glory of the tile work — a construction trade rooted in, quite literally, ancient Rome. Here, done so well. It’s hard to think we don’t get to see the whole sink and, given the mid-20th century date of the house construction, I suppose that metal sleek cabinet and light were installed originally, as odd as it looks against the tile work.

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So, about this tile. Flint, Michigan, it turns out, was a center of American tile making. Flint Faience Tile Company, started in 1921, turned out exactly these kinds of high-end tiles. That green bath with its “ombre” tiles, and this one, most likely are made using tiles from this company. All this tiling came from Champion Spark Plugs — they used porcelain caps. And then there were the expert tile workers, like Larry Mobley, mentioned in this 2008 story about saving tiles before buildings were demolished. These Flint bathrooms demonstrate the skill and care tile workers took at the time — the tiles, combined with expert craftsmanship, are indeed as permanent as anything built.

Flint, Michigan has been battered by economic downturns and terrible decisions by the leadership of the state. The homeowners of Flint face declining market values. There’s a wealth of beautiful, well–kept homes with no buyers. And when I look through the listings, and scroll through the photos, the bathrooms strike me as … brave. Optimistic. Deeply human. People bought these homes as permanent investments in their lives. They hoped to be part of a thriving community in which people as well as houses were understood as investments towards the future. Furnished with toilets, sinks, tubs, ornamented with tiles set, one by one, by someone’s hand in line so straight and true they sing today. Gleaming chrome, polished sinks, grout lines clean, straight, narrow: these bathrooms still look toward the future, no matter what politicians try to do to drag us back into the past.

All images copied from zillow.com listings. I have saved the addresses but won’t post them here. For more information about nearly everything pre-1970 that you see in these photographs, you’ll find the amazing blog, Retro Renovation and its gifted writers most likely have researched and posted about it.

Archive.org presents digitized editions of a few 20th century bathroom catalogs, such as Crane’s Plumbing and Heating for the Modern Home (1940) and For the Home of Today from 1938. Just search for companies (Crane, American Standard, Eljer) or “bathroom catalog”.

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