Having been part of two theater renovations which had enlarging restrooms as a major focus of construction I read CityLab’s article on the history of women’s restroom lounges with some interest.
It may not seem like an engaging subject, but since expectations about amenities like restrooms have a significant influence in whether people enjoy their experience, it is something to which it is worth paying attention.
Theaters were among the first buildings to include lounges as you might imagine, but I was surprised to learn that the lounges pre-dated indoor plumbing. There was a sense that the genders should have places to retire to separately even before other physical necessities were addressed.
“Interestingly, ornate lounges for women preceded public restrooms by several decades,” Kogan explained, noting that there were parlors for women in public buildings many years prior to when most of America had indoor plumbing. In other words, gender separation and protecting women’s virtue was initially the justification for these spaces, and the toilet came later.
When public restrooms were first introduced, they weren’t segregated by gender because they were all single use rooms. It wasn’t until construction techniques enabled greater amount of indoor plumbing that these single use rooms were attached to gender segregated lounges. Of course as technology allowed for communal restrooms, those became even more firmly associated with separate lounges.
Over time, the lounges began to be omitted from new construction, and with few exceptions, those building with lounges saw the spaces repurposed for other uses.
The thing I am curious about is how restroom sizes shrunk to the point where we are now expanding them to accommodate need. Was there a time when architects decided people didn’t need as much restroom space as they do?
Alternatively, have people become more comfortable using public restroom spaces placing more demand than was the norm when the spaces were originally constructed?
Another explanation, at least for performing arts spaces, might be that the expectation that you be back in your seat promptly at the end of intermission has directed more people to restrooms in a shorter period of time than when the building was first constructed.
I would be interested to hear what theories people have.