National Park scores deluxe pre-Civil War bathroom

Dunleith bathtub, shower and commode unitThe National Park Service has carefully dismantled and removed an 1850’s bathroom from the Dunleith Historical Inn in Natchez, Mississippi. One of only 20 antique bathrooms remaining in the United States, the Dunleith lavatory had hot and cold running water, a bathtub, a shower and a commode that were all part of a single large piece of furniture. The shower wouldn’t be out of place in a luxury home today; it has a 10-inch rain showerhead. An immense 400-pound zinc-lined cistern once contained the hot water for the system. (There was also a separate wash table with a marble sink which isn’t in the bathroom anymore, but the NPS hope to secure nonetheless to complete the set.)

The bathroom is thought to have been installed in 1859 by Alfred Vidal Davis who bought the Greek revival mansion that year. When the National Park Service workers were removing the bathroom, they found a packing slip from New Orleans plumbing company Price & Coulon. NPS historian Jeff Mansell believes the entire system was available for purchase from a catalog, hence the packing slip.

Ten-inch rain showerheadIt was installed on the third floor at the top of a forbiddingly steep staircase. Pipes carried water from the laundry room on the first floor where it was heated by boiler up to cisterns in the attic. When someone turned on the faucets or flushed the toilet, the cisterns drained down to the third floor. The toilet waste would then be piped to a septic tank that was also connected to the more traditional outhouses on the property.

That inconvenient third floor location saved its life, because bathrooms are gutted all the time but this one was so out of the way that subsequent owners never bothered renovating it. For the past decade it’s been used as a storage room. Now the Dunleith Historical Inn is renovating the space to make more room for paying guests. Recognizing the rarity and importance of the bathroom, they decided to donate the fixtures to the National Park Service.

Removing the cisternThe NPS accepted with alacrity, but removing the fixtures was an engineering challenge (LiveScience has a photo gallery of the process). Construction crews had to remove the commode, shower and bathtub separately, then build a ramp and use a forklift to get that 400-pound cistern out of the house.

For now the parts will be stored, but the NPS plans to install them in another Greek revival antebellum mansion: Melrose, a National Park Service property that dates to the 1840s. Melrose had some sort of washroom facility in the 1850s, but only the pipes remain so we can’t know what kind of fixtures were originally installed. The Dunleith bathroom will in all likelihood be installed in one of two dressing rooms at Melrose that are currently off-limit to guests.

Once the bathroom is installed, Mansell said, the room will be open for public viewing. He said he believes people will be surprised at the plumbing technology that was used in the bathroom.

“I don’t think (people) think of systems like this existing in the 19th century,” he said. […]

[John Holyoak, manager of Dunleith Historical Inn,] said moving the bathroom’s contents from Dunleith will allow the rare technology to be preserved and displayed.

“If we leave that bathroom where it is, no one will ever see it,” he said. “The benefit of having it moved is that it will be set up as a public display and tourists will be able to see something extremely unique.”

Sign me up. I have had a passion for historical bathrooms since I was a little kid squatting on the Roman latrines at Ostia.