East of Elmgrove

The Fix-It Kick

A long, strange journey to an authentic, mid-century lifestyle


I’m on a kick to fix things in my house. It started with lamps and then progressed to kid ceramics, kid art, kid magnets, picture frames, ripped clothing, door hangings, torn pillows, dresser tops, side tables, and a shoeshine kit. My kids broke, or disfigured, most of the stuff when they were toddlers. Instead of tossing out the remains, I put them in a closet and went on with my life, with the intention of returning to the sorry sacks one day. My busted-up stuff was always on my mind. There it sat, in darkness and dust, until the urge to make repairs seized me.

First, the lamps. My mother-in-law and her relatives appreciated lamps. I remember walking up to her top floor years ago and seeing a dozen lamps in a corner, each one exquisite in its workmanship and detail. We inherited the lamps when she passed, but I was wise enough to store them until the teenage years. Boy, that was a mistake. I should’ve waited until middle age. Teenagers are as clumsy as toddlers. Tables shook; lamps tumbled. Fortunately, they were salvageable. Off to Breeze Hill Lamp and Shade Shop in Riverside, where the proprietor worked his magic. A century-old floor lamp with dried flowers in its smoke-stained shade was saved, as was a brass lamp as heavy as an anchor. The art is on display again. Fingers crossed.

From there, I moved to the medicine cabinet on our third floor. The manufacturer’s sticker is still affixed to the door: General Bathroom Products Corp., Illinois. I searched for the cabinet up on eBay and discovered that I have a mid-century specimen with two fluorescent bulbs on each side and removeable glass shelves, and that it is “exemplary.”

My problem: only one bulb worked. I searched for that too, and figured out that I could fix it with a power gear fluorescent starter, which I bought on Amazon for $14.03. Sadly, the new starter only worked for a day. Undeterred, I called my friend Val, who fiddled with it for a few seconds and got it to work. High-fives all around.

Then I turned my attention to the toilet. I’ve always wondered about it since we moved into our house 18 years ago. It’s purple, along with the sink and tub. RISD professors owned our house at one time, and I thought they installed the bathroom during the swinging ’60s. The toilet was running so I lifted up the lid and spotted the date of its birth: “1932 Standard.”

Another online search revealed that we were in possession of an Orchid of Vincennes toilet, tub, and sink manufactured by American Standard from 1927 to 1950. Today, we would call that color lavender. Back then, it was considered purplish/pink. I know these scrumptious details because I found a website, RetroRenovation.com, that helps kooks like me remodel, renovate, and decorate their homes in authentic mid-century style. My bathroom was featured in an old advertisement in a posting about pink bathrooms, which, according to the site, were popular mid-century – thanks, in part, to First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, who loved all things pink.

“Orchid of Vincennes is a tribute to the high degree of artistry attained by the craftsmen of the potters of old Vincennes in the time of Louis XIV of France.” the ad said. After reading that, I felt enormously protective of my bathroom. I washed the porcelain with lemon juice. I polished the faucets with Quick-Glo. Only one problem marred the set’s authenticity: the toilet seat. It was white, a contemporary Bemis. The original had broken long ago. I searched up vintage toilets. “This Old Toilet” popped up. I emailed the owner, asking if he had an original Orchid of Vincennes seat. Get real, lady, he thought, but did not utter. Instead, he replied, “See attached memo about substitutions.” My new seat – dyed Orchid of Vincennes – should arrive any day. It’s been a long, strange journey, for sure.