Urban spelunking: Flushing out the reason for that lone basement toilet

Maybe you’ve seen one, or maybe there’s even one sitting – regally – center-stage in the middle of your basement.

I’m talking about that lonely toilet, often smack dab in the middle of the basement of some pre-World War II homes, often with no sink or tub/shower and, often without even any walls for privacy.

There was one in the house I first lived in here in Milwaukee, though that one had a door and walls, albeit fairly makeshift-looking. It was rarely, but occasionally – in emergency situations – used.

Although a number of explanations for this puzzling plumbing swirl around, it’s possible that they are reasons No. 1 and No. 2 in a more complex explanation, and one that depends on geography.

Laura Graf’s beautiful 1920s Colonial on the Upper East Side has one – with a door, thankfully – and she’s been given one of the most-common explanations.

“Our realtor told us it was a ‘dad’s toilet.’ When industrialists came home from work, they would come in through the back and wash up before coming upstairs,” she says.

“My parents are also active in preservation and I grew up in a house from 1900s with toilet in middle of basement, and then a 1920s house, also with little toilet room like we have.”

Many believe this explanation; that the toilets were for more working class folks to wash up before heading upstairs to the living spaces after work. (Graf's house, built for a steel mill owner, wouldn't have been considered as working class.)

My co-worker Nick Barth recently bought a house in Riverwest and his bonus fixture sits right out in the open in his basement.

Barth tends to trust the other most-often-heard explanation.

“I've heard a couple stories as to why, but the most plausible to me is that it's a kind of safeguard against sewer backups,” he says. “If the system backs up into your house, it's going to enter at the lowest point, or maybe closest to the sewer system, and in that case, the basement toilet allows for the backup to happen there instead of on your nice floors upstairs.”

Barth’s explanation is the main one for what has long been known as the Pittsburgh Potty.

While even in Western Pennsylvania some say that they’re prototypical mud rooms, architect William J. Martin (AIA) told TODAY Home in 2017 that Barth’s explanation is the correct one.

"As cities developed, there were (sewer) problems ... they would have backups," Martin said. "When a sewer backs up, it backs up into buildings. So the idea was to put a fixture in the basement where the line came into the street, so if there was a sewer backup, it would go there instead of the main house."

Regardless of their pithy moniker, Pittsburgh Potties can be found all over the country in places as far flung as New York, Oklahoma, Illinois, Indiana and, yes, Wisconsin.

For further background, I reached out to Professor Emeritus Thomas Hubka, of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture, who recently published a great book on working class housing in America.

“How the Working-Class Home Became Modern, 1900-1940,” talks in depth about plumbing and the importance of the “three-fixture bathroom,” which Hubka writes, “offered an unprecedented solution to some of the most interminable problems of domestic civilization related to sanitation, hygiene, health and child care, disease prevention and personal privacy. It was a package of technological innovations that improved the overall quality of domestic life, probably without equal.”

Urban spelunking: Flushing out the reason for that lone basement toilet

Hubka tells me that, regarding the basement toilet, “Keep in mind ... that for the working classes, new plumbing fixtures, especially toilet, sink, tub, did not typically arrive in the same room, as they did in middle/upper class dwellings. So an isolated toilet, sink or tub – especially for the lower WC – would have been normal including various rooms on the first floor and the basement.

“From my sources, an isolated basement toilet was often the first toilet, and based on some early sewer drainage conditions, a basement was the least expensive installation and piping solution, and often a good, makeshift sanitation solution. Early toilet plumbing for the WC was not leak proof.”

When Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District couldn’t offer any explanation, I sought out a local plumber. Her Milwaukee-specific response suggests that while in places like Pennsylvania the sewer backup explanation reigns, here the washing up answer is part of a group of varied reasons for the potties.

"I was always taught that these were for the men to use in the basement when they got home from work and were cleaning up for dinner," says Jessie Cannizzaro, of Milestone Plumbing, who is also the current president of NARI Milwaukee, a home remodelers' trade group.

"My understanding was that the slop sink or laundry tub were to be used in place of a traditional lavatory being paired with the toilet so there was not a redundant fixture and added cost," she says.

"We also do see old showers that are added with just piping directly above the floor drain for cleaning up too."

And the Pittsburgh Potty sewer-related explanation?

"I had not heard this before and it would not apply in our area as the floor drain is the lowest fixture and would backup before the toilet would."

But some toilets were likely installed before floor drains were common and as Hubka cautions, it's difficult to get to the bottom of basements, and this is likely what he calls a, "complex, multi-factor phenonmenon.

"I have found several in modest working class houses where the basement toilet was the first toilet, and if it was, it was not put there just for clean-up," he says.

"Having said this, there were lots of basement toilets, many were second toilets, especially in duplexes and apartments with complex basement activities, but all this requires careful documentation and summary."

In middle and upper class houses, like Graf's, the toilets may have been intended for use by hired help, especially ones working outdoors, such as gardeners.

Whatever their intended purpouse, in her experience, Cannizzaro says the basement toilets remain in use in many homes.

"Often the homeowners will dress the area up a little by adding walls and decorations instead of just a freestanding fixture like what was traditional."

In the meantime, while Graf is renovating her basement, the toilet will not go in the dumpster.

“We aren’t getting rid of it,” she says, “just getting a smaller toilet, so we can fit in a tiny sink.I love all the original fixtures in our house, so going to repurpose (the existing toilet fixture) in the third floor bath.”

Barth’s basement bowl isn’t going anywhere.

“I have no current plans to wall mine off or anything,” he says. “It's not hurting anybody. I was amused to find that the HVAC guys used it when they were installing our new furnace, so at least it's been useful!”