I firmly believe Oberlin’s bathrooms are some of the most underrated spaces on campus. They have interesting design elements, great acoustics, and most importantly are downright useful. The more I’ve paid attention to these spaces, the more there is to see. Hopefully, this post can help give a select few restrooms the appreciation they deserve.
#5 Warner Gymnasium First Floor Bathroom
Down to its bones, Warner feels like a creative space, the type of place where people do things. It smells like sunlight, old wood, and sweat. When you enter, you can hear the rhythmic footfalls of dancers above you. The building itself used to be the college’s primary gymnasium, before being converted into a practice and performance space for all types of artistic movement. The raised running track where athletes once trained now serves as a balcony for student shows.
I love the bathroom here not because it’s a particularly special bathroom, but because of how well it fits the space. The walls and floors are lined with smooth olive and brown tile. To get from the stalls to the sinks you have to pass through a row of long forgotten showers, a relic of the building’s history. With exposed pipes and rusty faucets, the bathroom might lovingly be described as shabby, but in the sense of a space that is worn because it is well used and well loved. The walls are almost entirely bare, except for a large, brightly colored sculpture of a bull head. It seems out of place, all bright colors and soft edges, standing out against metal piping and green tile. Upon closer inspection, the sculpture is made of hundreds of rosettes fashioned from folded magazine pages. I think it’s really lovely that this sculpture made of recycled materials is in a space that was itself repurposed.
# 4 King Building Second and Third Floor Bathrooms
These are some of the only bathrooms on campus that are regularly bustling between classes. Waiting in line may be hard on the bladder, but it is a great opportunity to appreciate a beautiful bathroom.
The most striking feature of these bathrooms is the natural light. The entire far wall of each bathroom is made of a row of windows that looks out on the grass below. The windows provide the perfect angle from which to appreciate the unique architecture of King. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I have never seen another building that looks anything like King, except Bibbins Hall, a conservatory building which happens to look exactly like it. The entire outside of this square concrete structure is covered in spiky, geometric columns that stretch into the sky. If you were a giant raining indifferent destruction on the tiny world below you, deciding to step on King would be like deciding to step on a porcupine. The view of the bizarre and beautiful columns from inside makes a trip to these bathrooms worth it every time.
# 3 Peters Hall Basement Bathroom
Peters is one of a handful of buildings on campus that looks like it would fit right in at Hogwarts. It’s five stories of stone complete with multiple turrets and chimneys all topped off with a bonafide observatory. Underneath all of that, nestled in the basement is one of my favorite bathrooms on campus. First of all, the bathroom is gender neutral, which is great because everyone can use it. The entrance leads into a long red and black corridor which really sets the mood of the space. At the far end of the corridor are three sinks, each with a circular mirror above it. As you walk forward, each mirror reflects a version of you back at yourself. Just at the moment when it feels like you and these mirror selves are going to collide, the space opens up and a perpendicular hallway leads into a row of seven stalls. The whole bathroom feels cool and mysterious, the type of place where a jazz band should be playing, and honestly, at Oberlin, that’s not out of the question.
# 2 Wilder Hall First Floor Bathrooms
The first time I entered the bathroom on the first floor of Wilder Hall I was so surprised at what I found, I checked behind me to make sure the rest of Wilder was still there and I hadn’t just been transported Narnia-style to a different world entirely. I couldn’t help but think that this place is what would happen if a 1960s candy shop decided to be a bathroom. As you walk in, your eyes are flooded by light. Although there is only one window in the room, its light is magnified by a room divider of warped glass and a giant five-foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling mirror. There is also a long wooden bench, just in case you want to sit for a while and appreciate how cool this bathroom is. (I've heard it's also a great place to take selfies.)
The floor is covered in blue and white checkered tile and the mirrors above the sinks are not content to be ordinary ovals or squares. No, these mirrors are pentagons, which is so much more fun. I was delighted to discover the toilets here flush with an explosive power that will always keep you on your toes. The whole place feels happy and playful in a way no bathroom has a right to be. It would be a lie to say I don’t look forward to visiting, whenever I’m in the building.
# 1 Lewis Center bathrooms
The Lewis Center bathrooms are nice, if a bit plain. They have white walls, tile floors, and a set of twin sinks. Still, what makes these bathrooms the best on campus isn’t a feature that can be seen with the naked eye.
These bathrooms are special because their waste water travels directly into the living machine. The living machine is a system of plants, microbes, snails, and insects that filter waste water. One of the system’s most important functions is denitrification. Nitrogen, which is abundant in human waste, is one of the primary nutrients plants need to grow. If too much of this nutrient is released into the environment, algae can rapidly multiply into out-of-control blooms. When all that algae dies, its decomposition exhausts the environment of oxygen and suffocates the organisms living there. The series of aerobic and anaerobic tanks in the living machine process the waste in a way that greatly reduces nitrogen content. In the final stages of the process, the water flows through a garden of tropical and native plants such as papyrus and calla lilies. After solid waste is given a chance to settle, the remaining water is disinfected with ultraviolet light and recycled back into the Lewis Center toilets, giving the toilet water its signature buttercup yellow color. It’s not just the classes in the Lewis Center that teach you about environmental science, it’s the design of the building itself.
These are just a handful of the bathrooms at Oberlin. I’m sure there are many more beautiful ones. Though I do hope you found humor in my attempt to rank Oberlin’s restrooms, I do think there is something to be said for finding beauty in ordinary places. A trip to the bathroom can be a simple call of nature or it can be as reflective as a pentagonal mirror. It all depends on how you look at it.
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February 1, 2022