Can the Pink Bathroom Get a Little Love, Please?

When Vanessa Roberts bought her cozy three-bedroom home in Tulsa, OK, 10 years ago, the first thing to go was her vintage pink bathroom with two-toned tile on the floor and around the sink.

"I thought it was really ugly," says Roberts, who blogs about food and DIY at Nessa Makes. Annoyed by the color, she and her husband spray-painted the tile white.

Roberts is one of many who disparaged the classic pink bathroom of the 1950s, with its square ceramic tile, often with a sash of black around the top, and sometimes matching pink fixtures. There's even a Pinterest board dedicated to remodeling -- or removing -- them. Even if Mid-Century Modern style is all the rage these days -- you can't walk 20 feet without stubbing your toe on a mid-century-inspired console table -- the poor pink bathroom is not (think Don Draper, not Betty). Now, when an unaltered midcentury home goes on the market, the original pink bathroom is often the first thing to go, making way for subway tiles and soaking tubs.

Yet there is a small but growing movement to re-educate the public on their value and beauty. Save the Pink Bathrooms is a website where retro enthusiasts can find resources while renovating, and encouragement to keep their pink bathrooms intact.

The website was started by Pam Kueber, founder of Retro Renovation, who was concerned that "pink bathrooms are being ripped out of 40s, 50s and 60s homes way too hastily," she writes. She scoured years' worth of marketing materials to determine the trend's rapid ascension, peak in 1957, and quick downfall.

The color is still out of favor today, although Kueber is single-handedly trying to bring it back into style. More than 1,000 people have signed her pledge to save the pink bathroom, but based on the fervent response she's received, she believes there are many more fanatics to be found. In the meantime, Save the Pink Bathrooms' Flickr page has almost 1,200 pictures of pink bathrooms to salivate over.

Still, most people consider the style nothing more than a retro '50s throwback.

First Lady Pink

Pink was Mamie Eisenhower's color, so much so that in the 1950s, when her husband was in the White House, the light pastel color dominated powder rooms and was alternately known as Mamie Pink and First Lady Pink.

Eisenhower used the cheery color in every room of the White House, a hue so omnipresent that reporters dubbed the home the "Pink Palace." She was known to bring her favorite swatches with her whenever she moved to ensure the right shade, and the bathroom of her retirement home in Gettysburg, PA, even had a pink scale.

Pink passion spread across America like a fever, buoyed by the growth of suburbia. On Kueber's site, she quotes a 1958 edition of Electrical Merchandising magazine: "If forced to pick one color as leading this year, most industry men say pink is tops."

The color's history is long and complicated, tied to our nation's notions of femininity, although its genesis as a woman's color is more recent than you may think. According to Smithsonian magazine, it wasn't until the '40s that women's fashion started trending pink. Some think the color promotes a kind of Botox-free face-lift, that whole rosy glow thing making you look better in the mirror.

Kueber estimates there were 5 million or so Mamie Pink bathrooms, but they faded almost as fast as they arrived. Pink was swapped for woods and neutrals in the '60s and the retro oranges and greens of the '70s. The world simply fell out of love with pink.

"Pink is a color that people have strong opinions on," says Jill Hamilton, a Denver homeowner whose renovated pink bathroom was recently featured on Design Sponge. "If the pink in your bathroom is in something permanent, like the fixtures or the tile, it does feel a bit limiting."

These old bathrooms could possibly limit your home values, too. "Sadly, I find pink bathrooms the toughest sell, even with buyers who appreciate and want to preserve original features," says Kent Mathews, a Realtor specializing in vintage properties in Portland, OR. "Many buyers just don't like pink."

Effect on property value

In fact, a vintage pink bathroom can deflate property value so much that some agents encourage homeowners to ditch them before selling. June Albert Cahill, a Realtor in Tucson, may have a Mamie Pink bathroom herself, but she understands why homeowners would be urged to remodel.

"Most Realtors feel that 'dated items' must be updated in order to get the top dollar, so the Realtor advises the owner to drop the price a few thousand," she says. "Before the home hits the market, the Realtors have already told the seller that their home is worthless because they have a 'dated' bath."

Another issue: America may be hyperfocused on fixer-uppers right now, says Eartha Kitsch, a pseudonymous writer covering vintage houses for Mid-Century Modern fan site No Pattern Required. To a certain extent, she says, fixer-upper shows and magazines "have done a lot toward making Americans think that if something is old in a house, it must go."

Despite the odds being stacked against them, saviors of the pink bathroom are wearing their color proudly. The Mid-Century Modern style's booming popularity, combined with a recent Scandinavian love affair with subtle pinks, may be creating a market for Mamie-style bathrooms.

Some home buyers intentionally seek out pink bathrooms, praising them for their chic appeal and sturdy '50s construction. Kitsch fell in love with the all-original kitchen and bathroom in her 1954 Nashville ranch, which she bought in 2009.

"A lot of people don't understand the charm, character, and value of an original bathroom," she says. "If a bathroom still looks great and functions well after 40 or 50 years, why rip it out?" Her own pink bathroom, she says, is "still working like new."

Some homeowners are even turning their bathrooms pink. Hamilton's home had a "guy's bathroom," with dark green laminate countertops, when she bought it. "I thought the green was a very unusual color choice for a bathroom," she says. For her 1920s-era home, pink seemed the only solution. "I wanted to do something that felt updated, but also appropriate for the age of the house," she says.

As for Roberts, she eventually regretted her decision, enough to change her bathroom back. "I felt so stupid, having" painted over the pink, she says. Eight years after painting over the tile, she turned to Save the Pink Bathrooms for advice on how to strip the paint without ruining the tile. She and her husband recently listed their home, hoping to move into a larger, vintage midcentury home. How about that pink bathroom? "My Realtor said it's great."

Even nonenthusiasts might change their mind once they find Kueber's site. "People find Save the Pink Bathrooms when they are new to their old house and start researching how to remodel the pink bathroom that came with it," Kueber says. "After reading the history, they decide they love their bathroom after all."

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Here's what you can do with your pink bathroom:

  • Is it worth saving? An excess of stunning pink tiling isn't the only indicator of a bathroom worth saving: Look for original features such as a midcentury tub and toilet, Textolite laminate patterns, and salt-and-pepper tiling.
  • Prepare to make the standard repairs. Chances are good your grout will need a refresh, and any chipped tiles will have to be replaced with look-alikes. Finding those can be difficult, but Kueber has rounded up resources at Retro Renovation. And if this is the first time your bathroom has been updated, you'll want an electrician to examine the wiring.
  • Replace the fixtures, if needed. Kueber recommends purchasing original fixtures and hardware on eBay, Craigslist, or markets such as Habitat for Humanity's ReStore. And if you're removing a sink or tub, make sure to donate or sell it to other pink bathroom devotees.
  • Go pink from scratch. If you love pink bathrooms but don't have one yourself, make your own. Source tiling and fixtures from Kueber's resources and crawl resale markets for vintage pieces. Overwhelmed by the renovation? Kueber has a checklist of 84 costs to consider before remodeling.
  • Modernize your pink bathroom. You can go pink without slipping into full-on retro -- just check out Hamilton's bathroom. She used clean lines and a simple vanity to integrate the vintage styling with modern minimalism.

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