Want to live in a toilet? London's public lavatories get a make-over

Updated 22nd December 2016
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Want to live in a toilet? London's public lavatories get a make-over
Written by By Francesca Street, CNN
Would you like to eat dinner, drink a cocktail or even go to bed in a toilet cubicle?
That might be strange question but for Londoners it's an increasingly realistic one.
Across the bustling British metropolis, abandoned public toilets are being turned into coffee shops, wine bars, restaurants -- and even apartments.
Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, public lavatories were constructed in key locations in the English capital. Mostly catering to men caught out on the move, they typically charged a penny per time.
After the Second World War, many of these facilities were abandoned because of the cost involved in their upkeep.
Fast forward 60 years, and the potential of this prime real estate is being realized -- one 600 sq ft former London lavatory near Spitalfields Market was recently listed for over £1 million ($1.5 million).

Repurposing the past

Just a five minutes' walk from Europe's busiest shopping street lies a striking staircase.
Framed by opulent black iron bars and hanging baskets, this staircase is typical of those leading to a Victorian public lavatory.
Today, however, it leads to Attendant, a funky West End hang out, located just off Oxford Street, opened in 2013.
The tiny 390 square foot (36.2 square meter) basement that houses this innovative cafe was originally an 1860s public toilet -- a past the coffee shop is keen to flaunt.
Preserved are the toilet's original white tiles, cisterns and -- its piece de resistance -- Victorian Doulton and Co porcelain urinals. There is even toilet-style graffiti on the walls.

WC wine and Joe's Public Pizza

On the other side of the River Thames lies Clapham in South London, where restaurateurs Jayke Mangion and Andy Bell have revolutionized not one, but two former underground public toilets into eateries: WC Wine and Charcuterie and Joe's Public Pizza.
The local council put the abandoned toilet which today houses WC up for rent in 2013. Mangion and Bell quickly snapped it up.
"When we first viewed it, we realized it had so much potential because of its natural character," Mangion tells CNN.
"That was always our objective, to keep it as raw and as original as possible, to really celebrate that whole Georgian era, that Victorian era, of the detail in the workmanship."
Like Attendant, WC is a treasure trove of original period details. Toilet cubicles in the 1890s premises have been turned into private booths adorned with a velvet curtain door, and illuminated by candlelight.
"Everything that remained we did our best to retain," says Mangion, explaining that even the original toilet walls were "turned into table tops".
While renovating the property, the duo came across a surprise.
In the toilet walls, under the plaster that covered the cubicle frames, was a stash of love letters and pornographic magazines dating back to the 1940s and 1950s.
The unusual interior of WC's toilets.
The unusual interior of WC's toilets. Credit: Courtesy WC Clapham
"We framed them and put them up on the wall for people to enjoy and chuckle over," says Mangion.

A bar fit for Oscar Wilde

Not all of London's abandoned toilets contain such gems -- many, in fact, have fallen into a near state of disrepair.
In the center of London's West End theater district lies Cellar Door.
Thanks to the vision of University of London lecturer Paul Kohler, this former lavatory is now a vibrant cabaret club.
"I understand it was once a cottage, in the gay sense of the word," Kohler tells CNN. "I am told it was frequented by famous gay celebrities of the past: Quentin Chris, Oscar Wilde. It was in the West End center where everything is happening -- and it still is."
It was the small and underground nature of the space -- reminiscent of a Prohibition-era New York dive bar or a Weimar Republic music hall -- that attracted Kohler, rather than the novelty of its former purpose.
"There were no original features, it had all been gutted in the 1960s, so it was just horrible," says Kohler.
Instead, Kohler and his team had to be inventive. The result is a dinky bar that can squeeze in 60 people, as well as a stage.
"It is a cabaret venue, and cabaret comes from the old Dutch word for small room. Cabarets should be in a small room. This idea of Caesar's Palace and Las Vegas cabarets -- that's so unlike what cabaret is about."

Would you live in a loo?

Having a drink in a former lavatory is one thing, but architect Laura Clark has converted set of 1930s Art Deco public toilets in South London's Crystal Palace neighborhood into a one-bed apartment.
"I've always been interested in crazy old buildings, and buildings that people can't see anymore potential in," Clark tells CNN.
"When I found the loos, I wasn't particularly looking for them ... They were all boarded up and painted brown and covered in graffiti. I realized that the space was actually really quite big."
It took her seven years to persuade the local council to agree to her plans and allow her to buy the premises.
"I thought it was a beautiful space and I could do something really special with the toilets," Clark explains.
Housing regulations prevented Clark from keeping the urinals, but she has repurposed the original mirrors and the waffle grid ceiling structure.

View from the loo

If more proof was needed that London lavatories are undergoing a renaissance, then Rachel Erickson can provide it.
The California-born entrepreneur founded, in 2012, London Loo Tours, a tour of the city's conveniences past and present.
"We start at a modern public toilet, Jubiloo on the Southbank -- it was built for the [Queen's] Diamond Jubilee," Erickson tells CNN. "We finish up at the cocktail bar Cellar Door".
Erickson says that England has lost about 40% of its public toilets in the past 10 years.
"Most of these places are realistically never going to be used again," Erickson says. "So I'm all in favor of recycling these public spaces, and keeping their toiletyness."
Rachel Erickson AKA the Loo Lady established "The London Loo Tour", informing visitors of the history of London's public toilets.
Rachel Erickson AKA the Loo Lady established "The London Loo Tour", informing visitors of the history of London's public toilets. Credit: Courtesy James Morgan

The future of London's toilets?

Letting and selling former public lavatories also allows councils to avoid wasting prime real estate and generate income.
Lambeth Council, the authority which had jurisdiction over the toilets that became Clark's flat, WC and Joe's Public Pizza, has embraced this strategy.
"There are a number of former WCs in the borough that have now been sold, and others that we are currently looking at bringing back into use," explains councilor Paul McGlone, deputy leader for investment and partnerships in Lambeth.
"These sites, some of which have been closed for decades, present a good opportunity to do something new and bring fresh life to our high streets."