Before and After: A 1970s “Pea Soup” Bathroom Gets a Serene Redo for Under $1,000

published Jul 29, 2023
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Giving a vintage bathroom a refresh doesn’t have to mean scrapping everything that’s already there. If they’ve been properly cared for, there are often retro pieces worth saving — from hardware that’s developed a perfect patina over time, to stained glass windows etched with bygone craftsmanship — and many conscientious DIYers do what they can to hold onto those.

When Meg from Girl Fixes Everything bought her 50-year-old home, she had these heartwarming intentions in mind. “I absolutely love all things retro,” she says. “If this bathroom had been done up properly, I would’ve happily kept the avocado sink and matching chartreuse green walls. I would have hung some carved wooden owls, pulled in a splash of complementary orange, found the shaggiest bath mat possible, and hung some macrame planters.”

It’s just too bad that the touchstones of the 1970s, when Meg’s home was built, didn’t stick around in a way that made sense for modern living. “The before photo used a flash, so you can’t tell just how dark and dank this bathroom was,” she says. “Any plants would have died a lonely death.”

The vanity was covered in a lead-paste paint that clashed with the hue of the toilet and tub, and the countertop was yet another off-white choice that Meg thought resembled spoiled milk. Everything looked and felt tired, as if the good vibes of that era had long left the room. And the list of unfortunate decisions didn’t stop there.

“At some point, someone had decided to add an oiled-bronze faucet — because why match the tub hardware? — which wobbled every time I attempted to use it,” Meg says. “The cheap panel mirror had significant water damage bleeding up from the bottom of the glass, and was only suitable for playing ‘Bloody Mary’ with, not for taking selfies.”

This bathroom sits right off Meg’s living space, so she knew guests would see it whenever she was hosting. Not to mention, Meg simply wanted a “working, hygienic” bathroom of her own. So she put a $1,000 budget and her DIY know-how to work and started a demolition project by herself.

Meg ripped out many of the room’s main players on her own — including the vanity, sink, countertop, and toilet — and then made the harrowing discovery that the tub’s faucet had been leaking once she started tearing that out, too. “It had probably been leaking for a minimum of five years, when the house was being rented,” Meg says. “I had to take out the tile to access the leak, and the tub looked like a small posse of cats or raccoons had jumped in and had a scratching match.”

Meg had never glazed or retiled a tub before, and she found that non-sanded grout was best for the old tiles she wanted to keep. “The old tiles were salvaged, scraped, and shined up,” she says. “Thanks to their square shape, they were relatively easy to reinstall.” After that job was complete, she moved on to reglazing with help from a kit. 

It may seem as though that was the biggest challenge of this project, but Meg says that involved the maze of copper pipes beneath the sink, which were all connected to different rooms in her home — from the attic to the kitchen! Meg was able to successfully navigate it to install the new vanity and faucet without creating any new snags, then moved on to the more fun tasks of painting the walls a calming shade of blue, hanging a gold-rimmed mirror, and placing a geometric shower curtain on a rod. 

Now the bathroom looks much more inviting, and thanks to a few colorful touches, still evokes a bit of ‘70s-era fun. “A quick flip for under $1,000 brought this bathroom from ‘peeing in a pea-soup cave’ to actually being able to take a bath in a serene seafoam room,” says Meg.

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