As The Toilet Flushes

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.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


5 thoughts on “As The Toilet Flushes”

  1. Thank you for bringing this up. Especially older there’s leave a lot to be desired from a woman’s perspective. Intermission is rarely long enough for both a visit to the loo AND a drink. In a survey of theatregoers in a city in Germany only 67% were happy with the situation…

    And here is, German only though, an account of one man’s journey to the top theatres in Berlin:

    It is difficult enough to change that situation in older buildings but even the new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg Hass elicited complaints about the lack of toilets…

  2. Thanks Ray. I am not sure how well Google translated that article from German for me, but there were a few funny observations that emerged. If it isn’t accurate, it is still amusing

    ” It is important to maintain an adequate distance from the urinal so as not to enter the failed urine of the low-grade educated bourgeoisie. The floor shines sometimes as Vegard Vinge rehearsed here. It needs more urologists among the theater doctors.”

  3. I have been reviewing subscriber questionnaires from some 30 organizations in 8 countries over the last 10 years or so. There is almost always complaints about toilets. First I thought it was funny curiosity. But of course if you get incontinence (is that the correct word in English) it is not nice to sit through a Mahler and then not have time enough to take care of more earthly needs. This week I read a survey from Sweden. 3 people complained about that the doors to the toilets tended to slam people in the corridor.
    Couldn’t have imagined this was a topic when I joined the arts management movement.

    • Right! I spent at least 5 minutes yesterday talking with staff about theories as to why the line at the women’s restroom started out shorter and moved faster Friday night than it did Thursday night.

      Granted, we also discussed why it took longer to scan tickets Friday than it did on Thursday too.

      In live experiences wait times for anything are important elements and bear some attention.


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