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Most people prefer to dump their loads at home, where the shag bath rug, air freshener, and other comforts of the hearth make nature’s call an indulgence, not a duty. Although no public john can come close to home-field advantage, some are better than others. Yet the ideal restroomwhat it should include and how it should be arrangedis elusive. Even the American Institute of Architects is uncomfortable talking about the subject, said spokesperson David Takesuye: “We deal in euphemisms when it comes to bathrooms.”
Big-name architects don’t deal at all with crappers. Even though names like Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, or I.M. Pei (all so big they stopped having to wipe their own butts) may show up on the blueprints, the real work “gets handed off to some peon,” says Takesuye. “Designing toilets is not a glamorous position….One might do it on one or two jobs, then graduate.”
Well, it shows. Witness the poopers at the Phillips Collection. Getting up to leave one of the two side-by-side unisex restrooms is the worst. They’re in a hallway right between two gallery rooms, and when you open the door, there’s a de Kooning staring you down. Wine-and-cheesers are standing to greet you on your exit.
Washington City Paper decided to turn pen and paper to where your bare butt goes. Below is our rankingfrom bottom to topof the 10 best ceramic parking spots around town.
Standards for this highly subjective and impressionistic review are simple: Contestants must be fundamentally democraticrestrooms that anyone can get into, and from which no one can throw you out, so no hotels, restaurants, and office buildings were considered.
10. Washington National Cathedral
Shit is a “theological problem,” wrote Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. “The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation.”
The restrooms at the Washington National Cathedral exemplify Kundera’s creed. Architecturally, the cathedral’s johns are typical worn-surfaces-under-harsh-lighting-in-drafty-church-basement potty fare. What makes them noteworthy is their placement.
The Europeans built Gothic cathedrals tall because they thought they’d get closer to God. The strategy works to fine effect at Washington National Cathedralas long as you’re not sitting on the latrine. Here, the crapper rests about as far from God as you can getdown in the bowels of the front of the basement.
You get there by going down a stone stairway. There’s a brick that says it’s from Mount Sinai, but the other commemorative works in the basement honor the workers who built the place. Upstairs, memorials to the cathedral’s lofty financial donors are nearer to crosses and overpolished floors. John D. Rockefeller’s plaque is far away from the bowels, prominent between two intimate chapels near the crypt. Money can buy you distance from excrement.
Once you’re in them, the stalls are so silent that you ache for someone to start the hand dryerjust to muffle your earthly confession.
9. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Designed to reflect the somberness of its collection, the Holocaust Museum is arguably the most emotionally effective piece of architecture in Washington. The restrooms, though, have been spared the moving light schemes and dignified arches.
The stalls, which are big enough to accommodate a constipated horse, have wide cracks where the closed door meets the flimsy column. And it’s pretty cheap to have the pack of butt-protector seat napkins precariously stashed behind the flusher. Plus, the bathrooms’ design never took into account how popular the museum would becomethey’re always crowded.
Understated fixtures and details make up for what the rooms lack in capacity and privacy. There are cool spotlights on the toilet signs, good door handles, nice perforated metal ceilings, stately brushed-metal faucet handles, and exhibit-quality toilet pipes. But many of the dual toilet-paper dispensers are missing their spring-loaded rollers and instead have three rolls of TP impaled on jutting metal prongs. Are they deliberately spare to match the rest of the museum? Truth is, they’re busted, but in a quirky way that fits.
Holocaust’s bathrooms alone do not justify the hassles of scoring a ticket to the museumyou have to enjoy the exhibits as well.
8. Cannon House Office Building
Almost every public restroom on the Hill is standard, dull, and government-issue. Many still use bar soap. Some have a lot of marble, proving that nice materials do not a nice restroom make. Women’s rooms in the Rayburn House Office Building have little stools in front of the mirrors. Other women’s rooms have “fainting” couchesjust what you’ll find “when you go to the therapist,” according to one former staffer.
A congressman who replaced his private washroom’s stool with a fax machine said what struck him about using the Hill’s public restrooms is that staffers don’t bother to clean up after themselves. Unlike offices back in his state, he says, “It’s like living in a frat house.”
Perhaps for that reason, the best restroom on the Hill is the men’s room in the basement of Cannon, next to room B-23. This one, true to form, ain’t too pretty, but it’s the atmospherics that make it great. Big, thick, hot white pipes run hissing across the ceiling, and two big brass gauges monitoring who knows what are stuck among them, right over the mirrors. It’s dark, like a submarine’s engine room, except with the head front-and-center instead of the oily diesels. The sinks are coated with gray soap scum, with a scum-fall cascading from the cracked soap bar on the side. Standing at the urinal, you can feel heat from the pipes pressing on your forehead.
7. Arts and Industries Building
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This building is dullsville, with most exhibitions tailored for junior-high intellect. The best thing about the place is the women’s room on the east side of the building. Getting there is a trek that requires traversing the guards’ locker room, but the reward is a great, empty restroom. The walls consist largely of tall windows with wooden, louvered shutters that reach to the ceiling and sprinkle light over all the marble stalls. Using the bathroom gives a better feel for a bygone age than the dusty exhibition of 100-year-old apothecary bottles and wheat stalks outside its door. Great john, almost good enough to justify visiting this gaudy fossil of a museum.
If you want to see the horrors of remodeling, walk over to the building’s west-side restroom. It’s done over in constipating early ’60s June Cleaver pink tile. Yuck. Upchuck country.
6. National Park Service
Scattered around the west end of the Mall and in East and West Potomac Parks, these seven round ying-yang outhouses are not nice to use, make no mistake, but it’s the thought that counts. Cleaned once a day, the flushes and faucets work, but everything else is broken. Stall doors are gone, bent, or their locks are missing. Light sort of comes through discolored plastic shades. And according to the signs inside, there’s no bathing allowed. Something has to be said for these, however, since it’s often a relief that they’re there, but mostly because they are restrooms in pure formnot just the right equipment thrown into a rectangle in the basement of a building.
Why rated at No. 6? Well, you’re not exactly reading Washington Checkbook here. Restroom design ideas count for something, something that more architects should think about. Although little more than daytime chamber pots, these are important because an architect faced facts and thought about meeting a basic human need first, not as an obligatory basement add-on to some froo-froo museum. These room-size round stools on the Mall don’t testify to the unacceptability of Creation, but to the messy facts of democracy and the difficulty of keeping it pretty. They are the truest public restrooms, Mall monuments to the daily devotional. Other than that, as a summer softball player said, they’re great because “they sure fit their environmentthey’re round and they’re brown.”
5. National Airport
Dulles International Airport, National Airport, Union Station, and the Greyhound Bus Terminal all have the standard planes-trains-and-automobiles rest-stop bathrooms. These places are mere waste factories, but they’re a good place to drop trou: When you put out a squeezer anyone who hears it will be hundreds of miles away by the time you go to bed. Make all the noise you can.
Union Station’s restrooms have no redeeming qualities. Greyhound’s are much better than you might expect. And the restrooms at Dulles look like something out of a trashy novel set in the Cold War Pentagongray paint and tile radiating an ashtray feel.
The best can in the transportation series is hidden in a corner of the balcony in the main room of National’s old terminal. Terrific natural light from a large window. Diagonal shadows across shiny white tiles. A quiet, middle-morning kind of crapper. Select it after brunch sometime. From an era when air travel was civilized.
4. Hirshhorn Museum
and Sculpture Garden
The Hirshhorn’s restrooms are hard to find. With their doors set flush into the walls of the building’s basement, they’re easy to confuse for janitor’s closets. Nice touch. Shiny brass push plates, too.
But once you find them, you’re in for a Bauhaus extravaganza. A spacious rectangular design houses modernism along with latrines and sinks. At first glance, the rooms look like a German factory’s john, but they’re usually empty, so there’s no reason to rush output. People seem to take their time. Once you’re done, you step on a metal pedal right where you’d find the gas. Whoosh, out the poop shoot it goes. The machine age at your service.
There’s a black couch and a separate room with a low mirror for wheelchair-bound users in both the men’s and women’s rooms. If you’re going to throw a tantrum and lock yourself in the john, this is the place to do it.
3. National Building Museum
These restrooms, which are stationed in the closest thing D.C. has to a museum of design, balance a ’40s lookhigh ceilings, patterned tile, and lots of white porcelainwith ’80s-vintage hanging bars of light. What gets them a high rating is the frosted glass windows in wooden stall doors. Imagine watching rippling blob silhouettes of urinal users while you’re sitting down, and imagine them watching you. It’s OK, though, since the stall’s very cool lock is a heavy pivoting deadbolt. Despite the frosted glass, there’s still the old problem of first needing to peek under the door to see if anyone’s inside.
Overall, a fresh break from today’s staid stall design. Stalls with a vision. Private eye’s choice.
2. National Postal Museum
Fortunately for crapper connoisseurs, this museum hasn’t caught on yet, and it never will. It’s stuck in a Groundhog Day perpetual cycle of high-school tours and small-town mail carrier tourists. Chances are you can get real peace of mind and body in this brushed steel, mirror, and marble john with very cool chrome wall lamps. You’ll want the lights and the faucets for your house. The long, narrow room and subdued lighting preserve the user’s anonymity and make you feel chic, too.
These restrooms are so perfectly ’90s that there’s no tinge of anything that doesn’t belong. If the Hirshhorn’s bathrooms represent modernism and the Building Museum’s exude ’80s postmodernism, then these postal potties show the graceful, smooth cooling of postmodernism in the ’90s. You enter through an alcove of rose-colored wood with brass drinking fountains. Kind security officers at a nearby station greet you entering and exiting. A place that says there’s no shame in what you went there to do. The postal bathrooms win their high rating because they’re no-shame johnsa place to poop with panache.
1. National Gallery East Building
None of I.M. Pei’s men’s rooms at the National Gallery’s east wing really succeeds. In fact, they need to be treated as an artist’s series, since each is exemplary in one way, but none is quite the ideal place to leave behind something of yourself.
Salt-and-pepper marble dominates the floors and walls. And in two of the chambers the design shuns standard bathroom boxiness in favor of acute and obtuse angles. But don’t get caught in the east basement bathroom. Its narrow aisles are usually blocked up with art patrons, and the wide swing of the stalls’ tall, silver doors cramps things further.
The third-floor bathroom is easily the best in town even though it’s so small it makes you feel violated whenever anyone else walks in. Laid out as a half hexagon, stepping into it is like entering a marble honeycomb hideout. The best part is using the urinal, which is at the end of a short marble parallelogram. Standing in front of it makes you feel like twisting your body like one of Salvador Dali’s clockseither align yourself with the walls, or with the urinal (you can’t do both). An experience. Highly recommended. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: James Watts.