Flush With Success, and Looking to Spend

Tracy Ballard and husband John Gorman of Cleveland Park enjoy their shower, which is nearly nine feet by four feet.
Tracy Ballard and husband John Gorman of Cleveland Park enjoy their shower, which is nearly nine feet by four feet. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006

It began, innocently enough, with plumbing issues.

Tracy Ballard and her husband, John Gorman, wanted for nothing, really. They needed only to fix the master bathroom, at the time a straightforward, utilitarian affair from the 1940s, typical of Cleveland Park row houses. It had a sink, a toilet and a little, leaking shower stall.

Being fairly well-off -- she is a Federal Trade Commission lawyer; he runs his own consulting company -- they began to imagine the possibilities. Gorman conjured up business trips to the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. Ballard drifted back to their honeymoon in South Africa. And soon enough, they found themselves with a shower so large and luxurious that Ballard could say last week, "Let's go in here."

It is nearly nine feet by four feet, a palace of iridescent glass tile, a human carwash with five shower heads, four body sprays, instant steam, a soaring skylight and portable speakers connected to a wireless iPod transmitter -- the better to transport the bather into realms of transcendent splendor.

"Yeah, we ended up going all out on it," Ballard said, as her 2-year-old, Ava, ran ovals inside. "We joke that it's a room for the entire family."

The average American home has gotten larger, and, for its own reasons, so too has the bathroom. But more to the point, as surely as coffee has become vanilla latte, the lowly, humble bathroom has become, in the words of one purveyor of fine fixtures, "pimped out." Or, as a woman who gave in to the tendency put it, "hedonized" -- decked with items such as Tunisian mosaic tile and antique limestone floors recovered from French chateaus.

Although the definition of luxury is an ever-shifting and largely subjective one, analysts who track spending on luxury goods say it has increased faster than the economy, driven by the seemingly insatiable appetite of middle- and upper-middle class Americans for ever-more luxurious lifestyles, even in the bathroom. Spending on luxury bathrooms -- those costing at least $8,000 -- will be $22 billion this year, compared with $7.3 billion in 2003, according to the Market Forecast Report, published by the trade magazine Kitchen and Bath Business.

That is 10 times what the U.S. government will spend on AIDS research this year. It is six times the annual budget of Kenya.

"For me, it was always a get in, get out part of the house," said Sandy Schlachtmeyer of Alexandria, who is trying to understand the trend. "Then these hedonistic spaces got to be standard, or expected, or something."

Seeing the fancy new bathrooms in her neighborhood, including a tub with a "waterfall" feature, she became concerned that no buyer would ever want her 1960s-era ones. So she went to a designer who introduced her to the world of $70-per-square-foot stones, $600 Hansgrohe faucets and $10,000 tubs.

"I wanted to do Formica," Schlachtmeyer said, but her designer objected. "She said, 'You can not do Formica.' "

Schlachtmeyer was conservative, but still, in the master bath, she sprang for Dornbracht faucets, two vessel sinks and a glass-paneled shower. And in a downstairs powder room, heated floors.

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