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Historical Remodel: Renovating a 90-Year-Old Bathroom

By Inside Columbia

She was stressed, and I knew why. Cheryl wanted to redo our master bath. I had promised her that once we stabilized the foundation in our house — soon to celebrate its 90th birthday — we would tear into the bathroom, a process I welcomed like a colonoscopy. But the most important room in the house — where we spend much time ruminating — needed attention. The shower leaked, the floor squeaked and the vanity was from the Dick Van Dyke Show.

The time had come.

Cheryl was a kid in a candy store when we entered Designer Kitchens and Baths, a showroom with thousands of combinations of interior design. Wes Wise guided us through the process of picking the elements, and showed us a list of contractors. We chose the first name on the list.

When he first surveyed our bathroom, David Lewis knew he was in for a workout. From the street, the main bath is up two flights of stairs, through three narrow doorways and around four tight corners.

David is a veteran at remodeling. For an independent contractor, he has consummate customer relationship skills, blending just the right amount of humor into his message about how messed up our bathroom might be beneath the surface. In our first conversation he mentioned that he had worked on remodeling jobs for a former Columbia Tribune columnist whose writing style I adore. Think Breakfast Creek. I can only hope to write with such grace.

From our conversations, David and I established common ground. We both love music, and we talked about the genius of Dwayne Allman and Leon Russell. He noticed the statue on my piano, an Emmy award I received a few years ago. Yes, we are both artisans, practicing different crafts, but working to achieve the same perfection, or as close as we can get to it given the circumstances.

Once all the orders arrived at DKB, and we had chosen a palatable flooring from Dave Griggs’ Flooring America, David launched into the process. It was bittersweet to witness the destruction of our bathroom world, everything to which I had been accustomed for decades. The shower and the tub lay on the floor in pieces to make it easier for David’s able assistant Edward to carry the body parts downstairs.

When David ripped up the carpet, a rug that had felt our footprints and family footprints and the pawprints of a dozen pets, he found the first problem. The bathroom plumbing had been routed through floor joists, weakening them. David knew that Kevin, the floor tile expert, would balk at the idea of laying tile over a floor that would shift and squeak, leading to cracked tile. David brought in plumber Bob Lawrence, and they devised a solution that would stabilize the floor.

He smiled and told me, “Remember, I said we might run into issues. Old houses are like that.”

But he was able to roll with the changes, and so was I. More important to David and me, Cheryl adapted to the changes, even though the process would take another several days to complete. Like an air traffic controller, David would need to line up his specialty artisans and bring them in to perform a Rubik’s Cube of patches. When two giant cabinets arrived, they became pillars in our dining room until the bathroom was ready to welcome them. I didn’t think they would fit up the stairs, around the corners, tipping through tight threshholds and low ceilings. But they did, with at least an eighth of an inch to spare.

“You doubted me,” David laughed. I did.

We progressed through the process with the kind of humor that makes the day go better. After weeks of saws and hammers, dust and grout and wiring and sweeping and trash and recycling and taking deep breaths, it was good to break in the new rain shower and set our electric toothbrushes on the vanity.

John’s books have reported on Missouri’s greatest bathrooms, like Shoji Tabuchi theater in Branson and the cool and inviting Undercliff Grill and Bar north of Neosho.

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