Triage for Dated Tile

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Rhonda Cadogan loves the one-bedroom condo she bought in Silver Spring in the fall of 2005. But she hates the bathroom.

Bright green tiles with a black tile trim surround the tub and line the walls of the small space in the 1950s building. "It's like Baskin-Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream," Cadogan says. "It's just awful."

Beth Orrell faced a similar situation when she and her family moved to a single-family Colonial in McLean built in 1968. Swayed by the big back yard, she overlooked the three dated bathrooms, each with its own tile color scheme and matching toilet. One is blue, another pink and the third tan.

Ceramic tiles in bold shades of green, yellow and black, softer shades of blue and pink or even a combination of the two can be found in many homes built in the mid-20th century. They are "the tiles that everyone has and wants to get rid of," says Alexandria-based designer Nancye Lewis-Overstreet. From rowhouses in Glover Park to split-levels in Silver Spring, from ramblers in Alexandria to center-hall Colonials in Bethesda, the dubious color combinations are everywhere, and many find them loathsome.

"I can't stand our colors," Beth Thomas of Silver Spring wrote in an e-mail about her pink-and-gray-tile bathroom. "But after seeing a couple of our neighbors' bathrooms, I've realized it could be much worse; i.e., teal and black."

Tiles with vibrant colors -- such as lime green, lemon yellow and salmon pink -- often paired with black -- can be traced to the art deco palettes of the 1930s and '40s, according to Joan Kohn, an author and HGTV cable channel host. "The style was initially very dramatic and glamorous." Pastel colors -- powder blue and soft pink -- reflect the fashion and optimism of America in the postwar '50s. Kohn says the popularity of pink tiles was inspired by the dress that first lady Mamie Eisenhower wore to the inaugural ball in 1953.

But history is no comfort to a homeowner living with mauve-tiled walls who wants them gone. Unfortunately, remodeling a bathroom is costly. What's more, older materials and workmanship are often worth keeping. That means old tile often stays put for more years than many people would like.

For homeowners looking to freshen their old-fashioned bathrooms, there are options. Ripping out and replacing everything is one. Less-expensive and -intrusive choices include repainting or refinishing the tiles, or covering them with acrylic liners. Many homeowners keep the original colors and make the best of them -- sometimes stunningly so.

Not everyone thinks these mid-century tiles are eyesores. The tiles are "relics worth keeping," says Susan Tunick, president of the Friends of Terra Cotta, which works to preserve and protect architectural ceramic surfaces. "They make a real statement about our cultural history. . . . They are a wonderful way to think about and look at our past when America was a producing nation. The more that can be kept, the better."

Anslie Stokes, a real estate agent with W.C. & A.N. Miller Cos. in Chevy Chase, says a few home buyers search for houses with these tiles: "Some clients absolutely love it; they find it part of the charm of the house." Although, she added: "I haven't met a single client who loves the lime green."

Green was exactly what Maureen Browne faced when she and her husband, Michael Byars, bought their 1940s brick Colonial in Chevy Chase three years ago. A full bath on the second floor was decorated with a combination of avocado, white, light green and sea-foam green tiles, finished off with dark green grout.

They bleached the grout, but the tile remains intact until their budget allows for a change.

Money has also prevented Cadogan from replacing her "mint chocolate chip" tile. Estimates she has received indicate the job will cost somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000.

In McLean, Orrell hired a color consultant, painted the walls and changed the lighting and mirrors in two of the three bathrooms. The rooms have become more tolerable, though they remain outdated by today's tastes. Still, Orrell considers herself lucky.

"Fortunately, I only had one color to deal with" in each room, she said. "I have a friend with yellow and burgundy."

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