When renovating our Garden District cottage three years ago, Philip and I carved out space for a small powder room just off our den. It was a perfect spot but posed a problem: Its long, narrow dimensions (3.5 feet by 7.5 feet) left little room for a vanity.
Then I remembered a console that we had in storage, an ornate Italian piece that once graced my mother-in-law’s foyer. At 12 inches by 44 inches, it fit perfectly. The cream-colored marble top was the ideal surface to hold a small custom-made vessel sink, created by potter Charlie Bohn of Shadyside Pottery. Its slim geometric legs took up no visual space in the room, and the gilded trim added a patina and unexpected bounce. Voilà! A long-forgotten antique table solved the problem and made a stunning addition to the powder room.
Sure, I worried about “corrupting” the console. After all, a plumber had to drill holes through the marble to accommodate the sink and faucet. I even stressed over what my precious mother-in-law would say if she knew her console was in a bathroom. But in the end, I went for the reuse of the antique and felt it did more good in our powder room than it would in storage.
Repurposing an antique is a good thing.
Garden District resident Sally Carpenter bought a robust English buffet and made it a vanity in her new powder room. A beveled-edge slab of marble became the counter. Uptown resident Pam Ryan took an antique elephant seat, and by adding a wooden top, it became an end table.
Jeff Elizardi, a Mid-City resident, is the fourth generation of his family to house a Victrola, originally used by his great- grandfather. The Victrola was lovingly refinished decades ago by his grandfather, who made it into a modern stereo system. Later, Jeff’s father, David Elizardi, converted the piece into a bar that his son uses today.
Smaller antiques also adapt well. Santos figures, ancient statues of the saints, have become artful lamps in Bee Fitzpatrick’s Garden District home. Uptown resident Cathy Burka uses an antique wrought-iron bread rack as a book shelf.
The adaptations of antiques are endless.
“We do this all the time,” says Gay Wirth, owner of Wirthmore Antiques on Magazine Street. She’s fearless in her transformations and once used a French enfilade, a long four-door buffet, as her kitchen cabinet. She replaced the wooden top with ocher-colored poured concrete to give the chic piece an indestructible work surface.
Wirth says the new uses of antiques brings “the then to the now.” By changing a
piece of furniture from something to just look at to something with a real function, a homeowner can add a sense of whimsy to a room.
“I once took a buffet à deux corps, a tall French cabinet with four doors, generally used to display china, and added a sink and ice-maker to it,” she says. “The back was covered with mirrored glass, and the storage piece became a gorgeous bar.”
Despite what purists taught a generation ago, making such dramatic change does not corrupt an antique or lessen its value.
“If you have a piece that is museum-worthy, you wouldn’t want to adapt it,” Wirth says. “But for a good-looking, well-made piece that can serve a purpose, it’s OK. It might even increase the value.”
Before changing your antique, do your homework. Read magazines, journals and books about the piece. Go to a museum and look at 18th- or 19th-century art – located in these elegant vignettes just might be your antique, used in a different way. Go online to find how others might adapt a piece.
“Don’t try too hard to make this change,” Wirth says. “Take your time, and let all of this evolve. Live with the antique for a while, and eventually, it will tell you what it needs.”
She also recommends that an owner not be intimidated: “There was a time when it was thought that any alteration to an antique would lessen its value. But antique collectors today want their pieces to have function as well as design. Using antiques in these very creative and personal ways gives a home a real heartbeat, but it has to be your heartbeat.”
Today, that long, narrow Italian vanity serves a purpose and gives a small powder room personality and even a sense of fun. I think my late mother-in-law would be proud.
The 19th-century French Louis XV buffet à deux corps can be converted into a wet bar with a sink.
The 18th-century Louis XVI walnut buffet can be used as a wet bar or as a bathroom vanity.