One, Two, Three

To create a light-filled, up-to-date master bath in a narrow row house, Jill Becker and Drew Phelps had to think creatively.

The corner shower, which doubles as a steam room thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass panels, is the focal point of the room. The corner shower, which doubles as a steam room thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass panels, is the focal point of the room. (Photo by Eric Roth)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jessica Keener
December 2, 2007

OLD HOMES CAN OFTEN SEDUCE owners with their history and charm while frustrating in equal part with their outdated floor plans. This paradox plagued Cambridge homeowners Jill Becker and Drew Phelps, who needed to add a master bath to their lovely but impractically laid-out 1850s row house. The antique Greek Revival had only one bathroom, on the first floor, far from their second floor master bedroom.

They resolved the problem by taking over an existing bedroom on the second floor, gutting it, and replacing it with a classically styled yet high-tech shower room, water closet, and dressing area.

Still, the oblong footprint had its challenges.

"Often in row homes, there are rooms you walk through," says Charlie Allen of Charlie Allen Restorations in Cambridge, the builder for the project. Working with the limitation, not against it, architect Thomas Downer of Downer/Associates in Cambridge took a "walk-through" bedroom and carved out an airy 5-by-7-foot shower room with sink and an adjacent 5-by-5-foot water closet with toilet and sink. A door with frosted-glass panels separates the two rooms. Another glass-paneled door leads from the shower room to a 5 1/2-by-13-foot hallway, which - when sliding pocket doors on either end are shut - becomes a private dressing area.

The couple also wanted to bring natural light into the new bathroom, but its placement along a back, windowless wall made that a design challenge. The solution? Insert clerestory windows on the bath's interior walls to capture sunlight from a large south-facing window in the outer dressing area.

Floor-to-ceiling glass panels by Prestige Custom Mirror & Glass of Waltham let light shine into the shower stall and allow the shower to perform as a steam room. Additionally, the glass puts the polished-nickel fixtures and sawtoothed Carrara-marble floor on display, turning the shower stall into the room's focal point. Water from an enormous shower head, purchased at Waterworks in Boston, flows like rain, says Phelps. There is also a hand-held spray.

The shower walls and ceiling are lined with 3-by-6-inch subway tiles, also from Waterworks, that "look alive," says Becker. "Because they're handmade, they're not perfectly matched, which goes along with the feel of the house."

Next to the shower, a white washstand with attached towel bars is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

The foot-square Carrara-marble floor tiles add lightness and the illusion of space to the bathing area. Black accents in the door hardware bring a vintage contrast to the nickel-finished hardware and fixtures. "We weren't afraid of mixing metals," says Becker. "Matching everything seemed too contrived."

Although the dressing room is also the passageway to their 2 1/2-year-old daughter Jackson's bedroom (which has its own new bathroom), it doesn't feel like a hallway. Built-in closet systems custom-made by Van Millwork in Needham bring a cozy sensibility to the space while maximizing storage opportunities for linens and toiletries.

Throughout the bathroom suite, bead board and moldings make for a more roomlike look, the builder says. "We copied original wood baseboard, moldings, and casings and used them liberally in a space that has ceramic and metal, to soften it," says Allen. "We're really proud of being able to bring in light, manage traffic, add function, and put all-modern amenities into an old house without losing the style and charm of an old house."

Willing to spend more to achieve the ultimate bath experience, Becker and Phelps selected top-grade materials noted for fine craftsmanship and design. "Even the fans, which are on timers, are super quiet," says Becker. Additional amenities include a heated towel bar and radiant heat in the marble floors. In the dressing area, wide-plank white-oak floors from Long Leaf Lumber in Cambridge - reclaimed from a barn in Pennsylvania - add depth and luster to the space.

"We didn't want to go all historic or contemporary, but we wanted something that we liked, something that wouldn't look dated in a few years," says Becker. With plans to raise their family in their remodeled home - the couple is expecting another child next month - they got a look that will endure.

Charlie Allen Restorations, Cambridge, 617-661-7411,

Thomas Downer, Downer/Associates, Cambridge, 617-491-2519,

Fixtures and Tile
Waterworks, Boston, 617-267-2511,

Jessica Keener is a freelance writer in Greater Boston. E-mail her at

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