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Powder Room Reno. Part 1: Adding Picture rails.

To redo the main floor powder room, I’m working towards a sympathetic style to the era (1920’s Arts & Craft, with a bit of borrowing from Art Deco, because it’s so cool). The changes are mostly decorative but the project includes improving the quality of the finishes. Since the house didn’t originally have a main floor powder room, I got some leeway1.

Somewhere on the internet, there’s all manner of people doing renovations called ‘in keeping with the original style of the old house’ that look completely modern to me. For example, an open concept kitchen with a marble-topped island may be lovely but not what any hardworking lady of 100+ years ago would have understood. The deliciousness prepared in the kitchen was consumed in the dining-room. Kitchen: functional; dining room: as ornate as the budget allowed. And never the twain shall meet i.e. become open concept.

I’m not throwing rocks at other people’s glass backsplashes. It is impossible and unfathomable to keep an old house in exactly its original state. This would mean no Wifi, but coal or wood heating, and perhaps no indoor plumbing or electricity, depending on the era. Respect the old, enjoy modern conveniences is my philosophy. 

Unless you’re an immortal vampire, if you own an old house, its had a long line of other owners with their own priorities for their living space before you. Thus we all have features of historic houses we celebrate, and must-have modern conveniences we add. 

Ok, enough reno philosophy. Current project: 

The power room is tiny. A bit less than 6′ x 6′. On the main floor, the ceilings are 100 inches, or 8’4″. Not sure if there is a significance to the 100 inches, particularly when the floor and ceiling both have changed height, after removal of the original plaster and lathe, and hardwood, to be replaced by drywall, and plywood and vinyl interlock, respectively. Very disrespectful of old building practices. But I digress.

In addition to making the style of the room more sympathetic to the time, and redoing some prior quick [ick] fixes, this was a good opportunity to address the geometry of the room. It needs to be less of an elevator shaft and more of a pleasant space to do one’s business. The ceiling needed to be lowered. Not literally, but with paint. And trim. 

A good visual trick to make a room feel wider and the ceiling lower is to paint the top of wall ceiling-white. This gives the impression that the ceiling is wider than it is. To finish this effect, a strip of trim is installed on the wall at the boundary between the white area and wall colour. Coincidentally, a picture rail2 could be involved in this decorating manoeuvre.3

Thus began the odyssey of investigating picture rails. In the arts and craft style, picture rails were more common than crown molding. Which doesn’t mean that a room couldn’t have both picture rails and crown moulding. Or that picture rails were an Arts and Crafts invention. Although my room only has one picture, rails are a sympathetic renovation.

Next, the placement of the picture rail. Consulting a few sources on old houses suggested:

  • 12 to 20 inches down from the ceiling depending on the ceiling height, or 
  • at the height of the window frame, or 
  • an inch down from the ceiling, or
  • by formula, based on dividing the wall height by 19 and putting the picture rail 3 of these 19th down from the ceiling. In my case, this netted out to about 11 inches. 

Feeling a bit flummoxed, I needed a visual and used masking tape to place a piece of trim at various heights. Window height was way too low (about 18″ down) and I didn’t like the look of abutting the picture rail into the window trim. By eye, 11 3/4″ was a perfect distance from the ceiling. Out came the measuring tape and level to mark placement. Of course, down 11 3/4″ all around the room was nothing close to level. The level line around the room ended up varying between 11 3/4 and 12 1/2 inches from the ceiling. A last minute modification, to make the distance from the ceiling, door frame and window look right, used the level line as the base (rather than the top) to mount the rail. I ended up about 3 19th’s down, so here’s to theory meeting practice.🍻

Next stage of the reno: Fixing some DI-Don’ts.

1My grandparents house, of the same era, but grander in style, did have a powder room. As a kid, I thought this was exotic, since our modest ’60’s style back-split only had one bathroom. 

2 Picture rails were bits of wood trim, mounted securely around the room to, astonishingly, hang pictures from. The idea was that putting fasteners into the wall to hang some art from was (a) unstable because the nail/screw might pull out the picture crash to the ground, and (b) marring because after a few iterations of different art/inhabitants/tastes the wall was pitted with holes. Mais voila, the solution is the picture rail, solid enough to support heavy works and flexible enough to adapt to new hangings each week. Apparently picture rails became fashionable in the mid 1800’s and continued until about WW2. 

3Sometimes, there is an existing picture rail. It might be painted, or wall papered, above or below for contrast or continuity to achieve the effect of lowering or raising the ceiling, or widening the room or making it cosy or achieving a that Victorian crowded effect or modern clean expanse of room or… many things are possible. 

Thanks for reading.

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