Sunken Bathtubs Seem Like a Terrible Idea. So Why Do They Keep Popping Up in Real Estate Listings?
Bathing is sacred. Not only has it been known throughout history as a ritual for meditation and renewal, but many of us have found solace during the pandemic by slipping into a hot bath at the end of the day.
As someone who frequently writes about real estate and spends plenty of her time cruising Zillow, my eyes have caught a plethora of unusual bathtub sightings recently — more specifically, ones that are literally built into the ground. It got me to wondering: Why would anyone install a bathtub in the floor?
A little research revealed that the trend of sunken bathtubs flourished in the mid-20th century, prompted by a renewed fascination with cultures of antiquity. In a 1963 issue of Modern Living, sunken bathtubs were said to be inspired in part by ”glimpses of Roman high living” in the classic 1963 film Cleopatra. Along with the film, bathroom fixture manufacturer Crane Co. sold a line of sunken tubs, one of which was dubbed the “Marc Antony.” And in the same year, House Beautiful featured a spread titled “The Big Swing to the Sunken Tub.” Paired with photos of tubs that resembled small indoor swimming pools, the article called the sunken bathtub “a thing of beauty,” and repeatedly described them in terms associated with grandeur, like “luxurious” and “pampering.”
That emphasis on luxury was the main attraction to a sunken bathtub, says Alison Hoagland, professor emerita at Michigan Technological University and author of The Bathroom: A Social History of Cleanliness and the Body. But does it have a functional purpose? Not so much, she says.
“There’s some association with luxury and that’s totally it,” says Hoagland, who mentions that not only is getting out of a sunken tub more difficult but cleaning it is likely a challenge, too. “At a time when people are putting grab bars in their showers more, and thinking about accidents in the bathtub, imagine climbing out of a sunken tub. Not only the hazard — but imagine trying to wash a kid in a tub when you’re not in it.”
I came across a sunken tub in a listing for a stunning Victorian home in Maine that was previously a bed and breakfast. Tucked under a stairwell, the bathtub is fully ensconced into the ground below it, right next to the toilet. Eager to see if there was some grand reason for the tub’s placement, I reached out to the realtor on the listing.
“So the couple that lived there for almost 30 years are two very tall people,” says Anna Charlotte of William Raveis Real Estate, who explained that since the bathtub is located under the staircase going up to the attic, it was a pain for the resident to climb out of a normal tub.
“Apparently every time he stood up, he had to watch out for the angle underside of the attic staircase. And he thought ‘Well, why don’t I just sink it into the floor?’” She explains that the staircase to the cellar is underneath the tub. When you go down into the basement, you can see the underbelly of the bathtub and its legs flailing out, entirely exposed.
I wasn’t satisfied with this answer. Surely the only cause for sunken tubs couldn’t be extremely tall people looking for a few extra feet of height. I mean, look at this tub surrounded by green carpeting in a bathroom in Vermont. No height restrictions there!
Listing agent Andy Paluch with TPW Real Estate says the bathroom dates back to 1969. Some older prospective buyers have told him walking into the bathroom is like taking a step back in time.
While both properties in Maine and Vermont are historic, I’ve also been seeing these tubs in homes that aren’t all that old. (So, it’s not just that people haven’t been renovating their ’60s-era bathrooms, either.) That leads me to my last sunken tub question: Are people still installing sunken tubs into their homes these days? According to Home Depot, it continues to be a trend associated with luxury.
“The seamless install into your bathroom resembles an infinity pool and is simply an unexpected design element,” says Sarah Fishburne, director of trend and design at The Home Depot. “While a very expensive investment and not the easiest installation process, it can be a very high-end, luxurious design option for homes, offering a modern, sleek, spa-like feel for a bathroom.”
Just make sure the toilet doesn’t overflow, I guess.