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The Owners’ Suite: A Brief History and Foolproof Advice

19 min read An owners’ suite has become a must have in modern homes, but less than a generation ago almost half of homes were still without indoor plumbing. So how did our bathroom expectations change so drastically in such a short time? And more importantly, how the heck do you fit an owners’ suite into a modest mid-century ranch?

Does the primary bed/bed configuration – the owners’ suite – in your mid-century home leave a lot to be desired? Maybe you a have a glorified powder bath tucked in next to your bedroom through a pocket door. Perhaps your ranch has one bath for you, the family, and any dinner guests who use the main floor!

If you wish for a little more from your bed and bath configuration … You’re not alone!!

When it comes to modern expectations for private spaces the vast majority of mid-century homes leave a lot to be desired!

Almost every mid-century homeowner we work with at Mid Mod Midwest longs for a better bed/bath combo.

For many of our master plan clients “better” means a modern owners’ suite with all the spa features and storage found in modern homes – just scaled to fit their home.

And – good news! Most of the time we can make the magic happen! Here’s an example where we were able re-configure a too-snug en suite bath to work better for the homeowners (and win them a whole lot of bonus built in storage)! (Read more about that one here!)

And here’s one where we sacrificed a bedroom to make room for a single homeowner who wanted a roll-in accessibility friendly bath attached to her primary bedroom! (Get the full story here.)

 

So, let’s explore a quick history of the owners’ suite.

What exactly is an Owners’ Suite?

In our modern life, it’s the largest bedroom in the house. Possibly with a better or more private view. Possibly with better/more storage space or an extra closet and, usually, it has an ensuite bathroom.

You may have grown up calling this area the Master Bedroom and Bath but … the home design world has been moving away from that recently. It smacks of some American History that was not great.

But there are plenty of alternate terms: the primary bedroom, the main bedroom, the parents’ bedroom. Bedroom with en suite bath. Take your pick. Here at Mid Mod Midwest we like to call this area the owners’s (not the owner’s) bedroom and bath. Yay for terms that acknowledge teams!

A little Owners’ Suite History

While the wealthy have had luxurious and private sleeping and bathing spaces through history, the modern owners’ suite is a pretty new development in modest every day homes.

When the baby boomers starting being born, almost half of U.S. homes were still without indoor plumbing. But the mid-century building boom turned that right around. Still … those early ranch houses didn’t come with a lot of frills.

So how did our bathroom expectations change so drastically in such a short time?

It started with the 1918 flu pandemic and the cleanliness obsession that ensued.

That era moved hygiene top of mind and the trends of the time reflect that. Subway tile and the four foot “wave” line in bathrooms were popularized as easy to clean surfaces. Even pedestal sinks were part of the desire to clean every nook and cranny during and post pandemic.

Once plumbing moved inside and hard surfaces became all the rage, post WWII prosperity made it just a quick jump to create fashion out of former function. The mid-century saw the rise of beautifully colored fixtures and tile, refreshed each season for homeowners who wanted to stay on trend.

As promoting homeownership (for some) became a priority in the mid-1950’s, builders began adding upgrades like a two car garages and a second bathroom to relatively modest homes.

Many (maybe most?) homeowner’s in the U.S. have now come to expect an en suite bathroom and expanded storage as must haves in their primary bedroom. Voila, the modern owners’ suite!

If your home doesn’t have one … what can you do?

Stay tuned.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going dig deep into how to build better bedrooms, bathrooms…and spaces beyond. Hopefully to help all my mid mod enthusiasts create great owners’ suites scaled to suit a mid-century home.

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • How the 1918 flu pandemic made subway tile happen. 
  • When owners’ suites started popping up in US homes. 
  • Why you shouldn’t compromise on your bathroom!

Listen Now On 

Apple | Google |  Spotify | Stitcher

Resources for your big owners’ suite remodel 

And you can always…

Read the Full Episode Transcript

I wonder if you can relate to this question. The second most asked for update we get in our masterplan packages right after help my kitchen layout does not work is we need a better owners’ suite? Or can we fit an owners’ suite into our mid-century house? And the answer is yes, we probably can.

These days when I start thinking about how to improve on an owners; suite situation, I’ve got a lot of experience to hand mid Midwest has come up with dozens of solutions for this challenge in the last few years. And today I want to talk to you about the ins and outs of what you’ll typically find as an existing owners’ suite in a mid-century house and put a little history behind it.

Hey there, welcome back to mid mod remodel. This is a show about updating I’m Sam homes, helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, you’re listening to Episode 1301. If you caught that, we just rolled over from the twelves to the Thirteen’s. And I’ve got an overarching topic in mind for the next few months of episodes.

I’m calling this the Bed Bath and Beyond season, in my mind anyway. And I’ll be digging into everything from why a small bath update is one of the best starter projects you can take on to how to fit more storage into a mid-century bedroom, to where to find space to add an owners’ suite if you don’t have one now and more. I’m going to use that beyond to branch out into a few other planned episodes coming up on finding the right contractor or great basement updates.

Although that last one is less of a divergence from the main topic than you might think. Because guess what mid mod Midwest often ends up adding to a good basement update. Yeah, a guest room with a new or an updated bath. So that was the thing too. Long story short, we’ve got a few things we want you to know about great mid-century bathrooms, great mid-century bedrooms and beyond. And I want you to stay tuned.

If you’ve got specific questions you’d like to see me address, shoot them to me now in my Instagram DMS. That’s still always the best way to get ahold of me personally. So I will get them fit into the episode list or make sure I cover them with a topic that’s already on the slate. Oh, yeah. And I’m just going to whet your appetite for the end of the summer. In August, I’m going to be doing a mid-century design clinic on amazing mid-century Owners’ Suites.

So if you’re new, I love to do mid-century design clinics as often as I can. They are a two hour live delivered workshop where I go deep into the design process for a specific space. And the past I’ve done them on topics like the mid-century kitchen, patios, porches and decks exterior experience updates to give your whole house a mid-century facelift. And most recently, one on simplifying every mid-century finished choice to help you kill that, Oh, God had to pick every single product sense of overwhelm.

All of those midcentury design clinics that I’ve just mentioned, are available to watch on demand now, and you’ll find them under the learn with us tab on our website. In each one. I walk you through a mini Master Plan process so that you can design with me for your home in real time. Which mid-century design clinic we walk through how to ask the right dream questions, how to discover the most important house hacks for that area, how to distill the right style choices that matter most. And then we draft. I’ll show you a host of options and examples from past mid-century projects that we’ve done. So you can develop a one space master plan on your own.

Anyway, I’ll be adding to that topic lists soon with the mid-century Owners’ Suite clinic. It is coming, it’s going to be on my mind. We’ll fit it in talk about it this whole season and it’ll probably be happening in early August. We still have to find the moment in summer between some downtime for myself and my lovely teammates. So the date will be announced later. Keep your eye on the weekends of early August though, as always, you’ll find the show notes with the transcript of this episode and links to any references I might make on the website at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1301.

All right, let’s talk terminology. What is an owners’ suite? Mostly it’s the largest bedroom in the house. Possibly it’s got a better or more private view. Possibly it has more storage space an extra closet than the other bedrooms and possibly it has an ensuite bathroom, so you don’t have to step out into a hallway to access your bathing space. Now, why did I title this episode, the owners’ suite episode and not the master suite episode?

Calling these spaces the owner’s suite is a transition I made a couple of years ago, industry standards have been shifting over time when I grew up. My family lived in a house where we all shared one bathroom and took our turns getting ready in the morning before school and work. But I had friends in newer homes that had separate bathrooms for the biggest bedroom. And I definitely at that time always call that space the master suite. But times change in and so do terms. Calling that primary bedroom the “master suite” just doesn’t hit the way we like anymore.

When we think about the history of everything that’s gone on in America since day one, we can pretend to be anglophiles about it and go back to our British master of the manor. But let’s be real…it’s a little icky anytime you start thinking about it too hard. So while I still occasionally slip up and fall back into my childhood language. Sometimes even on a call with a client. I prefer the term owner suite now and I’m slowly tuning my tongue to adjust to that going forward.

Now no matter how you slice it, you could refer that bedroom as the primary suite or just the bedroom with the ensuite bathroom. One more thing about the Owners’ Suite, I like to put the apostrophe in the right place on my written documents to indicate to my clients that I mean, the sweet for the two owners’, rather than the owner-singular sweet, unless only one adult lives in the house. Mid Midwest is all about vintage style, but not vintage values. And we certainly aren’t talking about a Don Draper era when only one person’s income is paying the mortgage. And frankly, even if it were, that totally discounts the labor and contributions of the other members of the household, so I like to think of it as the owners’ plural suite.

All right. Now we’ve got that out of the way. Let’s talk about this space itself, you’ll hardly be surprised to know that what makes a good owners’ suite in my mind depends on you. Your preference is a matter that makes more difference to me than anything you’ll find in a Realtor’s standard or a to-do list found on a click bait magazine article. But I want to talk you through some of the things recent clients have asked for, and how you can decide what resonates more for you in your own home.

A lot of our clients want help to improve on or add an Owners’ Suite to their homes these days. And it’s starting to seem like having an owners’ bathroom. One that’s separate from a shared or whole bath can be a deal breaker for a lot of people these days. This came up in a design chat I just recorded with Sarah year out mid-century homes and Boise. She says that in Boise, and I’m assuming it’s true in other markets, they’re really struggling to sell homes that don’t come with an ensuite bathroom. And this sometimes happens even in their coolest their most mid-century gem.

Architecturally significant homes, if they were built before a certain era don’t come with an owners’ suite standard. People beyond a certain price point just won’t consider a house that doesn’t have a private bathroom. It doesn’t even have to be large or grandiose. But it can’t be the shared hallway bathroom. Even for a couple living in the house alone.

I find this fascinating. I was kind of surprised by it. But on the other hand, it’s definitely something that comes up in most of our mid-century master plan projects. I’m curious, how do you feel about this yourself? Do you have an owners’ suite? Do you need one? Do you want one? Do you wish yours were snazzier? Or does a whole concept feel strange to you? I would love it if you would pop into my Instagram DMS and tell me the answer to your question. Because I’m trying to take a little survey; figure out how important the owner’s suite feels to the mid-century enthusiast of the world.

All right, because everything is better with context, I want to talk a little bit about owner’s suite history. With all the media and real estate attention on this glorious owner’s suite area. It’s easy to forget that they haven’t always been a staple in home design. I mean, there was a time when people who wanted the privacy of performing their morning ablutions in their own space did that with a basin and a pitcher of water and a chamber pot. That time was not so very long ago.

One of my favorite murder mysteries of the 1930s strong poison had a plot that turned on possible poison in the UN basin set out in a guest’s bedroom space. That of course is almost 100 years ago now. So not super recent. But it’s interesting to take the timeline back a little way. So let’s go back to say, the early 1900s. The idealized Victorian bathroom had a stand up shower, a plumbed pedestal sink, a flush toilet possibly be day. But that ideal bathroom wasn’t something that everyone had access to. Rural homes had outdoor toilets. Many rental units and cities had shared bathrooms down the hall rather than the private bathroom for each home.

The idea of the pristine and clean bathroom as a domestic necessity really came into the public mind after the 1918 flu pandemic. Fun fact, this is also the moment when all of those apartment buildings were built with the large double hung windows and the large in Unit radiators that you couldn’t control. So if you ever suffered through time in your teens in your college years in your 20s, living in an overheated winter space in a rental unit without individual heat control and swearing while you had to open up a window to achieve a livable indoor temperature.

That wasn’t an accident. That wasn’t a mistake, or a failure on the part of the building. It was on purpose. The building was built at the height of the post pandemic fresh air craze. And those buildings were built with overcapacity boilers. Intentionally. The plan was to warm up the unit so much that tenants would be forced to let in fresh air even in the coldest weather. So that was also though, coming back to bathrooms, the heyday of the subway tile moment and the moment when that idea of a four foot high sort of high tide line around all the bathroom walls came into prominence.

The usually white subway tile was easy to clean and showed grime to inspire you to keep it clean. It was paired with a pedestal sink and that was meant to Stand clear of the wall so you could clean In every surface, no germs aloud. So if you listen to the mid-century kitchen history episode, where we interviewed Sara Archer on her amazing, wonderful book, the mid-century kitchen, read it, buy it, come back to it every year. It’s great. She talked about how, in the 1930s companies were really starting to groove on the idea of color as a way to become fashionable and to introduce planned obsolescence to force people to buy and rebuy things that hadn’t broken or gone out of style, or gone out of use, they had gone out of style.

So people weren’t really budgeting for fashionable bath remodels year by year then, but each year after the post war boom kicked in, when people were building and spending money on houses, builders were right in there with this is the most stylish best color bathroom for this year, fill in the blank year. People started at that point to get into the idea of the bathroom as first a necessity, then something that was practical and healthful and then something that was stylish and fun and demonstrated your personality. So the system is shifting, the idea of luxury in the bathroom is coming.

Still, change didn’t happen overnight. In 1940, just a little over half of American houses had hot water and indoor toilet in a bathtub. And even in 1950 A quarter of US households per census did not have a flush toilet. That means the era of outhouses is still within our living memory. Now, ask your grandparents if they are still around what they remember about did they have indoor plumbing even from their earliest childhood years. Now this is where I’m going to get a little more granular as we come into the mid-century era.

My personal moment of studying year by year by year the transition of how mid-century houses improve. One of the best places to look for evidence around that is contemporaneous advertising and marketing materials. So here in Madison that means going through the records of the annual Madison Parade of Homes brochures. This was a home show that took Madison by storm in the 1950s. The Wisconsin State Journal reports after the 1952 Parade of Homes 70,000 visitors had come and they counted cars from 11 states. The parade showcased 18 incredibly modest ranch homes priced between 11,017 $1,000 Just outside the new beltline highway, and only a few of these homes had even an attached garage.

Most of them had two bedrooms, we’re talking basic baseline, but they were still trying to make the most of what they had. I love this from the advertising pamphlet for one of them. They’re breaking up the large hands a mirror above the basin in the bathroom as a key feature. This bathroom comes with a mirror. Can you imagine? Anyway, from 1952 on the houses grew and amenities and style features.

1954 was actually a big watershed year. That was the year that the two car garages were first introduced in Madison, just a few houses had them. Just a few also had a luxurious second bathroom just a powder room, not a private owners’ bath. These changes were accelerated in 1954 by the Federal National Mortgage Association charter Act, which aim to make home buying more affordable for some people. Be sure to check out my episode on redlining.

If you want to know more about racial inequity and mid-century home sales, but it did introduce lower down payment costs and the 30 year fixed mortgage which made home buying more accessible to a lot of people. So in that moment, after 1954 houses started to be bigger, they started to have three bedrooms as a default, they started to have more features two car garages were standard and you start to get more and more of these things. This is where you start to see owners’ suites pop in. And I’ve come across owners’ suites in a lot of different mid-century homes from the early and mid 50s.

With the caveat that they’re always extremely modest. Usually what they have happening is there’ll be a block of bathrooms separating the primary bedroom from the others by a little bit more hallway space giving them a little more sound insulation, they’ll have just a little more storage. And usually there’s a block which has some hallway linen cupboard, and every one bathroom and an owners’ bathroom all grouped together in kind of a jigsaw square or a Tetris manner. That owners’ bathroom though, is by far the smallest, as opposed to in a modern house where the whole bathroom pretty much looks the same, same layout same features as a 1950s hall bathroom.

In a new build house the owners’ bathroom would be much bigger, much more luxurious have multiple separate features. In that first version of the owners’ bathroom. It would be a single sort of a vanity with just room for the sink, a small toilet and a stand up shower. In many cases as I’ve worked with people, those stand up showers are so small that a large person doesn’t even find them comfortable to use. Certainly there nobody’s idea of luxurious, but they exist. This is a pro and a con, sometimes it’s hard to persuade yourself to change the layout of a to small space.

Whereas if you were building from scratch, you could do a little more what you want. But you can make your choices and we can think about where we can borrow a little more square footage here. And they’re often a thing we deal with in our master plans. Since those first days, though, the space has just kept on growing, the owners’ suite gets a walk in closet, a more luxurious bathroom space every year. Sometimes it feels like a luxury arms race to me.

And while I was doing a little research for this podcast, I came across an article that mentioned the idea of a dual owners’ suite that is a grand bedroom storage space and bath for two people, two halves of a couple in a partnership, that’s actually a new one on me. But you never know, it could be the right choice for the right person or people. As always, it depends. So that’s what owners’ Suites have been.

Let’s talk about what owners’ suites are and could be. I think that there’s a bunch of different possibilities. And what I really want to emphasize throughout this entire season is that the choices that you make should be the right choices for yourself. Here’s a couple of interesting examples. For one couple, they were living alone in a house, it had a three bedroom space upstairs with a single bathroom, and they were planning to keep it that way. They didn’t want to change the outer borders of the house, the envelope, and it was a split level house, so they would have had to sacrifice a bathroom and a bedroom entirely to put in a new bathroom.

What we did instead, though, was proposed moving their bedroom, which they had made the largest one who had slightly the largest closet, we decided we could reconfigure the closet space in order to shift their bedroom into the one that was closest to the existing bathroom, then they would have the option to a step out into the hall and into that bathroom without being in plain sight from the stairs to downstairs in case a guest was over. Or they could even cut a door into that private shared bathroom through their bedroom wall. We did this with just some reconfiguration of the built in space in the house rather than having to build an entirely new bedroom.

Now, for other people, sometimes it’s just the access to that bathroom that makes it the owners’ suite or that turns a shared bathroom into a type of an e owners’ suite, especially if you live alone in a house. When I designed my own parents’ home where their bathroom is, it serves as the singular bathroom for the whole main floor. It’s also their owners’ suite. Now it does touch their bedroom. And we wondered whether it would be useful to have a door directly from their bedroom into the bath and eventually decided against it, they would rather have storage in that space. But what we did do for them was to put an extra door on the opposite end of the shared bathroom that points to the laundry room. And from there, there’s a door that goes right to the front hall.

That’s because they live on 44 acres and our big prairie restores, they’re often coming in grimy and dirty possibly with ticks on their clothes. And they want to come straight in drop off dirty things in the laundry and go right into the shower. That to them was more important than having a direct access to their bedroom. So that’s just an example of thinking about how to personalize your access in and out of bathrooms for your personal life.

Here’s what I want you to take away, the bathroom is not a space to compromise on. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m saying spare no expense, it should be luxurious beyond your dreams. I just mean you should make personalized right choices for yourself. Think about what you want in an owners’ suite and go all in on that.

One area that basically no owners’ suite needs is the sad compromise of the low small tub. The kind you can shower in technically, but not really bathe in the kind of tub that’s easy enough to get in and out of to make it an effective shower unit just doesn’t ever really create a tub that’s worth getting into for a soak. They basically only work for children’s baths. So in my opinion, I always feel like if you’re building a separate bathroom, it’s not the only bath in the house. You want to choose do you choose to soak? Or do you want the ease of a roll in shower? Or both? But separately?

Either way, I love to encourage my clients to tell me are they tell people do they want a free standing tub they can soak in or that two people can soak in think about what factors that you really value and if you can afford them with space and dollars, make those choices. In the end, what matters to you is what you need most in your owners’ suite. Do you need an ensuite bathroom? Especially if you live alone in a house by yourself or with a partner and it’s literally just steps around the corner? Maybe you do? Maybe you don’t.

You have to ask yourself what you need to improve to make your personal space. Are you looking for a quick clean-up spot or a glorious sanctuary for your daily spiritual moment? Is it a workstation to get your face ready to face the day or just a snug efficient spot to dip in and out of Also, it’s worth asking the question Do you have an interest in multitasking that space? Are you curious about giving part of it as this part is our private bath but through this little pocket door? This becomes a powder room that serves guests at the front hall.

Having the flexibility to think about what can work and what’s most important to you but let you make the most of the vagaries of your home its layout and what might be possible to do more. So, as I’ve walked you through the history of the developing bathroom in general and the owners’ suite in particular, you’ve probably been thinking about your own setup. Have you got a private bath attached to every bedroom in your house? Do you want one?

While not every Mid-century home comes with more than one bath at all on the main floor, it is something you can add. And you can make it more or less mid-century vintage and style while keeping it perfectly in line with your own style. We can work with you to get the bathroom of your dreams. Adding in and updating owners’ suite is something that Mid Mod Midwest does for nearly every Master Plan Project.

I was literally just sketching out options for another one this morning. So if you’d like a little advice on the subject, you might be looking for a mid-century Master Plan entirely apply to work with us using the link in our show notes page. Or maybe you just want some help to plan out your own perfect great bathroom update. I can walk you through the steps inside our DIY master planning program ready to remodel I’d love to answer your Owners’ Suite questions on our next monthly Office Hours call. Find out more about how to work with us. Or just get the transcript for this episode at our show notes page at midmod-midwest.com/1301.

Next week on the podcast, I’ll be talking you through how to master plan will help you pivot to deal with any situation shifts in the economy. Change to your budget, or the title you love is out of stock. Not a problem.

One of my favorite things about the master plan is how flexible it can make you as you plan a perfect remodel for you and for your home.

More on that next Thursday. Bye for now.