Essential Elements: The phone booth in the bathroom

Editor’s note: This column features a different guest writer each month who writes about comical musings, quirky happenings and other essential elements of getting through this thing called life. Care to share? Email your column ideas to Lynn Monty.

When I picture my husband, John Hollenbach, just off the phone with a perspective client, I see him grinning, shaking his head, as he emerges from the half bath to tell me about the call. You, reader, may wonder why John took calls from perspective clients in the bathroom.

I think back to the deserted farm house on Champlin Hill that John gutted and stripped to the timbers and boards. I think back to the young architect intent on reconfiguring the interior for modern living and bringing light, style and architectural humor to the old place. John designed a tiny powder room just inside the back entry and close to the kitchen.

Remember, this renovation happened before cell phones, when a small house usually had just one telephone, a land line. Earlier, telephones were often placed on a table in the living room. But now, the early 1970s, wall-mount phones were popular, and in many homes wall phones were mounted in or near the kitchen. John came up with a novel solution: he built a bathroom telephone booth.

Picture that first floor half-bath. The door opened in against the left wall. Straight ahead one faced a small white toilette, its back against the exterior wall, a colorful painting above. Also on the outside wall, to the right of the toilette, was a good-sized casement window, taller than it was wide. It opened with a crank and the windowsill was a little above waist height. Beneath the window, at 90 degrees, sat a narrow vanity with a one-piece Corian sink and counter top. Standing at the sink, one’s back to the toilette, one could look left, out the window, and in good weather chat with someone on the patio.

That describes the traditional water closet aspects of our powder room, but the space contained another important part of life. It served as the household telephone booth. When the bathroom door opened inward against the left wall, across from the door and recessed slightly was a bright red wall phone mounted at eye level. Beneath the phone was a six-inch wide shelf that always held a cup of pencils and pens, and later a slender rolodex. Fourteen inches below that was another shelf with a lip that held telephone books and a yellow legal pad, kept upright by a wooden slat.

Now step inside the powder room, close the door, and you are in a snug unconventional phone booth. Weary perhaps? A handy seat is available. Need a place to take notes, the Corian sink counter suffices. Long time on hold? Spruce up. John was often seen buzzing his chin with an electric razor, telephone to his ear, as he waited for a connection. And, of course, with the door closed the bathroom phone booth allowed for quiet, private phone calls in the midst of a noisy house.

For many years, the sheetrock all around the red telephone was covered with names and telephone numbers. Absent paper, John jotted down names, numbers and even materials prices on the wall. Occasionally he’d be heard sputtering in the bathroom, “Where’s the number for that South Burlington plumber?” Or, “I’m looking for the lumber yard in Springfield?” as he scanned the wall searching for a phone number.

There were other entertaining things about the phone-booth bathroom. At least entertaining for us, sometimes disconcerting for guests. Imagine the newcomer, excusing herself from the dinner table for a trip to the loo. Comfortably seated on the toilette, the red wall phone starts ringing. At the table we might giggle quietly at our guest’s likely discomfort and, at her return to the table, apologize for not giving a heads up.

If it was a kid in the bathroom and John was expecting an important call (and remember, if you didn’t answer the phone, there was no way of knowing who had called) he might go to the bathroom door, open it a crack saying, “I’m sorry, excuse me, I have to get this.” He’d open the door just enough to slide in an arm, pluck the phone from its cradle, pull it out into the hall and take his call.

John got a lot of phone calls in those days from clients, subcontractors and his workmen. As his business grew so did the volume of calls. Late afternoon, John not yet home, fussy children, trying to get dinner, the phone would ring. I’d answer and take a message on John’s behalf. Then another call. And another, interrupting kid time and dinner prep. A day came when I swore off phone duty and let it ring and ring and ring behind the closed bathroom door—telephone on hold until John got home.

Later, when the kids were a little older and we had a firm commitment to dinner together each evening, the phone was a different kind of problem as clients and colleagues telephoned during the dinner hour. Finally John started telling folks he was not available between 6 and 7 when he had dinner with his family. For that sweet hour, the bathroom was just a bathroom, not a phone booth.