Into every life walks a handful of people who impact your life profoundly. Jane Powell, bungalow author, restorer & advocate, was one of them for me.
In the winter of 1998, I walked out of my 1966 MCM house in Pasadena where I had lived as a renter for 8 years & gasped to see a FOR SALE sign in the yard. My landlord, who was a darling fellow, had purchased the house shortly before the housing crash in1990, & after having it on the market for some time, decided to put it up for rent. We had moved from Arizona where housing prices were about 1/3 of what they were in L.A. & we decided that renting was our best choice. We were very happy there & eventually would have probably purchased it but for the fact that it was 3 stories hanging off a cliff and my knees were starting to object. And the earthquakes were pretty pretty wild suspended 100 feet up. But hey, my husband always assured me, our house was on bedrock!
Faced with having to move, I kinda panicked. I am not known for being easy to please. I am known for my ability to kick 100 houses to the curb & here we were with an unknown deadline. The L.A. market was heating up, the house was stunning, the area, amazing & I was trying to run a contracting business, set up a lender & find a house that I desperately wanted, totally uncertain as to how long I had before my bags were packed & on the street.
THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT HISTORIC HOUSE
I looked at my 100+ houses. At that time, you didn’t have the option of cruising through images online. Your Realtor printed a list of options for you & you drove & drove & drove. The main area in which I was looking, Eagle Rock was hilly & the streets very windy so it was challenging to find the houses, aided only by my trusty Thomas Guide. (Life is way easier now!)
Eagle Rock is a bungalow community in N.E. Los Angeles. Later I learned its history & its culture, but at that point, I was just looking for a house, a horrible undertaking given the amount of destroyed historic fabric I encountered. I mourned the loss of these features & every day I would come home & cry, & end up with a tummy ache. I realized that I was going to have to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, but at this point,I was clueless as to what this might be.
Then one day, I found my house-a 1910 Craftsman with long, matted, pink shag carpeting that reeked of eau de doggee. Looking up from the scary carpeting I gazed at sprayed popcorn ceilings & wondered at the lumpy stuff coating all the wood trim- wainscoting, plate rails, & box beams. (Yeah, someone had sprayed between the beams.) A heavily resin coated spool table sat squarely in front of one of the leaded glass bookshelves that flanked the fireplace. A television sat on the spool, clearly a place of honor as all the furniture pointed at it.
On the positive, I had walked in through the original door with its 1910 hardware & beveled lites. The living room was large with a nice, big picture window, looking out at a mature pine. The original gas lights were still there on the box beams, now fitted with electricity. x The leaded glass doors were still there beside the fireplace. All the interior doors were there with their lovely old hardware. All the original woodwork was there & I could imagine the wood floors under the gross carpet, waiting for me to come & rescue them.
In the dining room, little Dollar Store pigs modeled tiny straw hats bedecked with itty-bitty flowers, atop the Douglas Fir plate rail because, as the homeowner explained, she loved, “Country.”
There was a vinyl pop-out window behind the sink in the kitchen cheerfully adorned with more molded resin tchotchkes depicting life on the farm. The bathroom had blue plaid wallpaper, with pink flowers trailing through it.
The closet of the master bedroom had been turned into a half bath & a truly disgusting vanity with a sink sat outside the closet door, in the bedroom. Yeah, I yanked it out & replaced it with a antique washstand & ceramic washset, but I didn’t use them!
But, it had many original features that were beautiful & I could see past the pigs & spool to know that this was my house.
We put in our bid. On the street, on the hood of my Realtor’s car. Trembling, while trying to look casual. My husband hadn’t even seen the house & here I was, leaping alone into this huge decision. I didn’t care. It was meant to be my house.
BUNGALOW KITCHENS ON THE CHEAP, BY BUNGALOW AUTHOR, JANE POWELL
I was terrified. I had no idea what it would take to take this house back to 1910 & I was already 30% over budget. The kitchen was my greatest concern. I jokingly told my husband that I needed to find an article called, “Bungalow Kitchens on the Cheap.” I was on the edge of retracting the offer. I mean, I’d seen The Money Pit, & though I’d never owned an old house (or any house for that matter) I had lived in several & knew their tendencies.
That night we took a walk through downtown Pasadena & went into a bookshop. I poked around the magazine rack whilst Hubby browsed the Sci Fi. This magazine sat on the shelf with an article by Jane on creating old kitchens on a budget. Honest. This really happened.
The deal closed & we started rehabb’ing, pulling out the carpet, scraping the gooy stuff of the woodwork, & refinishing the floors. A month later, we moved in. I couldn’t live with the chemical smells so kept the house wide open during the day, but at night, closed it (It was late December, chilly even in Southern California) except for the windows above my bed. And I ran a fan. I slept in long underwaer & sweats & wore a knitted hat pulled down over my ears & almost to my eyes. Yeah, I was cold, but I didn’t care!
DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT’
I had seen Realtor signs about the neighborhood & one day ran into said Realtor at Trader Joe’s. It was home tour time in nearby Pasadena & for some reason I asked when we’d be having our tour. She told me that the committee was meeting that night to start planning the first one. Honest. This was the answer to my question of what could I do about it?
I rolled up my sleeves & became a neighborhood activist. I learned how to speak for these buildings, telling their stories that I could hear clearly, but found that others needed to have the volume turned up.
PLEASED TO MEET YOU, BUNGALOW AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE, JANE POWELL
After the first tour was pulled off beautifully, I invited Jane to come and speak at a town meeting. She had written Bungalow Kitchens & Bungalow Bathrooms which I adored. I was stunned when she agreed to come to our little town.
Jane was so much like me that it was scary. We both had red hair & drove P.T. Cruisers. Purple was our mutually favorite color & we loved kitties. We both fervently believed that there was a special place in H-E-double-chopsticks for people who destroyed historic buildings. We were a coupla loud broads on a mission.
I have always loved old things- houses, furniture, clothing. When I was 6, I had an elderly neighbor whose very elderly mother was bed-ridden. She was left alone all day so every day after school, I scooted over & listened to her tales of how the world was when she was young. It changed me. Growing up I owned a vintage clothing store, collected antiques and always lived in old houses.
But my passion was unkindled, my path undetermined, until I bought that magazine & met Jane Powell.
Jane passed in 2012. Her heart & her humor left an indelible imprint on many of us. She transformed my life giving me beauty, purpose & community.
These many years later, I am still made happy & content by old houses. Now retired, I have the time to indulge myself & my chocolate is still bungalows.
Thank you, Jane Powell, bungalow author, expert preservationist, delightful individual & darn good friend.
TIP: READ ABOUT JANE’S BOOKS HERE.
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