How to Make a 5-foot Alcove Tub FEEL Like a Vintage One

Since I first wrote about the renovation of my 5-x-7-foot Harlem bathroom, a number of readers have written to ask just which five-foot alcove bathtub I bought that had the effect of the divinely comfortable vintage tub in my former space…and WHAT exactly was the trick I used to ensure that it would be a pleasure to soak in. It’s taken a bit of steam to collect photos and info but here it is. 

​The challenge of my Harlem bathroom is one that many people face: How to make a small, windowless bathroom feel spacious and light. And especially how to make a five-foot bathtub set in a three-side alcove FEEL like the cast-iron beauty I had in my 1920’s apartment with the perfect angle of recline (below). For some of us, a great tub is essential to living: an instant way to relax. The foot-deep straight-sided tub you see in shower/baths won’t do.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

The first challenge would be to find a cast-iron tub with the right angle of recline that would fit in the standard five-foot space. Cast-iron is more expensive but key if you want bath water which will really steam and stay hot, something fiberglass just can’t achieve. Fiberglass scratches easily and needs special care, but is quite a bit cheaper.

Moving pipes to rearrange the fixtures and have a big bathroom would have cost a lot of money I didn’t have. I took on the existing bathroom’s footprint as a challenge. I started by gutting it…

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

My plan was to make the new bathroom spare and modern by clever use of space. A wall hung sink, big mirror (salvaged from the original bathroom) and high-gloss painted walls would help make the small bathroom look spacious and light. (In another post, I’ll get to the sliver pillar medicine cabinet that sits flush in the wall and holds a ton of toiletries, and other minimalist storage solutions.)

Sallys-Bathroom 1000 color corr

I actually measured the angle of recline of my beloved vintage tub to see if I could find it in a five-footer. I poured over diagrammatic specs of various tubs online to narrow the field. Then I went to showrooms around New York City and actually climbed into tub and lay there for a while, sussing whether it was truly comfortable. (You have to be pretty bold to hang out in a bathtub in a public showroom).

Kohler Tub beauty shot

The tub I found that had beautiful modern lines, was deep enough to cover me with water, and had the right angle of recline was Kohler’s Tea-for-Two, which you can order at The Home Depot (along with Kohler’s proprietary drain which is not included). Each end of the tub is angled and it has a flush overflow drain so theoretically two people could sit in it at once. Kohler makes a very similar tub in acrylic, called Underscore, that is quite a bit cheaper.

kohler tub raw

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to photograph the tub au naturel when we uncrated it. With its bolted on steel legs, it looked like a rough, hyper-modern claw foot tub. I briefly entertained the notion of NOT building it in, but leaving it as is, perhaps painted.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

When we set the tub in place, I discovered I would hit my head against the wall when I leaned back to relax, a common problem with alcove tubs. The wall blocked the flow of the comfortable back, forcing my chin down. It would never work and make the effort and expense of the tub moot. Fortunately the sheet rock hadn’t been set in place and I could see that there was space between the studs for a solution.  I made the contractor climb into the tub so he’d understand why I needed a “head niche”.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

We couldn’t move the wall but we could carve out just enough space between pipes and venting so that I could comfortably recline without bumping my head. Before the alcove was tiled, supports were put in to hold white marble slabs which would make up the head niche, as well as storage for shampoo and soap.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

I used inexpensive rectangular white porcelain tiles to build in the tub alcove and left the rest of the room untiled, with shiny painted walls.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

The niche MADE the tub; I can relax with the same comfortable angle of recline as my big old vintage tub.  Nobody who sees the tub ever asks what about the niche; somehow, it is invisible.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

My considered little tub has proven way more comfortable than many of the grand ones I’ve been in, that have uncomfortable stone surrounds (a terrible trend).

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

 

5 Responses to How to Make a 5-foot Alcove Tub FEEL Like a Vintage One

  1. Helen Voris 02.26.2016 at 5:45am #

    Very clever and elegant! After recently redoing a bathroom ourselves–and publicly sat in many a tub for just the same reasons as you(!)–we finally found the perfect one for our space and comfort. Having moved from a house about 100 years old which had a cast iron tub, to a house built about 20 years ago, we were fortunate to have our contractor point out–before we got too far into the project–that cast iron tubs, being very heavy, cannot be routinely installed before determining whether or not the floor joists will accommodate the weight, which is often NOT the case in newer buildings.

    Also, the tub we chose has a built-in heater which gently reheats the water as it circulates through the jet system, which means one does not have to keep letting water out and adding hot water to keep it at the desired temperature–this saves both water and the energy and cost to run the household water heater.

    There are more models of bathtubs out there than I could ever have imagined, but with patience and persistence it is possible to find just the right one to suit one’s situation, preferences, and environmental concerns.

  2. Sally Schneider 02.26.2016 at 9:07am #

    Here here for test driving bathtubs, toilets…whatever! Thank you for the info re cast iron tubs. It’s kind of scary that new construction might not be able to support them, but good to know.

  3. Reanna 02.26.2016 at 10:45am #

    Another trick for warmer baths is to stuff insulation around the tub when installing it. I’ve found cast iron tubs suck the heat out of the water if the bathroom isn’t kept as warm as the rest of the house (probably not an issue in your apartment!), so I went with the Kohler Archer tub.

    Haven’t bathed in it yet, so I can’t give a full review, but the depth and angle seem good and the overflow drain, though not recessed like the Tea for Two, is less lumpy than a conventional overflow.

    Thanks for posting these pics. I think I need to lower the head niche I put in! I was sitting up pretty high in the tub when I marked my head’s contact point for the framer.

    Nice light fixture!

  4. Rebecca Johnson 11.03.2016 at 6:25pm #

    Yes, I’ll agree. (You have to be pretty bold to hang out in a bathtub in a public showroom).

    I had a 1921 home, with the long, deep claw foot tub. When we sold and built a new house, I actually climed into a ground-floor window of a condemned house to see the reputed claw foot tub I might salvage.

    OK. It was a smallish town (under 50K). And close to my own neighborhood. The family’s son had gone to high school with my own, late father. Still, I felt pretty bold.

    I did get the tub, and had it resurfaced. It was surprising how much difference that foot shorter made in the luxurious feel of soaking. I also placed it in a larger room, and (gosh!) was it drafty! We live and learn.

    Thanks for all the time you’ve invested in sharing these details with us. My goal is to own another comfortable tub. It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed a good soak.

  5. Sally Schneider 11.04.2016 at 11:28am #

    Good luck with your search for a “good soak”. For my money, it is essential, so it was one of the important items in my reno.

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