Home & Garden Columns

Bungalow Details Revealed

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Friday September 21, 2007

Jane Powell is a bungalow and old house zealot. Every community should be lucky to have even one person like her. 

As she writes in Bungalow Details: Interiors, “when I see some old house that has been neglected or abused, I literally begin to twitch, I get a rush of adrenaline, my mind starts going a mile a minute with plans for what needs to be done…” 

If you live in a bungalow, or like bungalows, or just like old houses in general, do yourself a favor and go to her evening talk Thursday, Sept. 27. No one I can think of knows more, both practical and esoteric, about these houses than Jane Powell and she’s enthusiastically willing to share. 

Her lecture, at Berkeley’s historic Hillside Club, is the last in a four-part series exploring the history and built character of Berkeley, organized by Arlene Baxter, president of the Berkeley Association of Realtors.  

“Jane Powell answers the question, What is a bungalow?, exploring the history of bungalows, their relation to the broader Arts & Crafts Movement, and why they have become popular again in the 21st century,” the lecture publicity promises. 

The term “bungalow” originated with the housing British colonials built in a concession to tropical and subtropical climates. Single-floor dwellings with wide, overhanging roofs, large porches, and open, airy, floor plans were all adaptable to local conditions and building materials. 

The style arrived in the United States in the late 19th century and flourished up through World War I, until displaced by “Period Revival” architecture (think Mission Revival or Mock Tudor). 

What’s the detailed definition of a bungalow? The Oakland-based Powell has written that it’s “fundamentally rather complicated.” 

But a few frequently seen characteristics include a single floor (often, though, with extra rooms tucked under a gabled roof), wide roof eaves, a generous front porch, and an interior that de-emphasizes hallways and staircases in favor of rooms that flow into each other. 

Many, if not most, bungalows were inexpensive to build and affordable to buy when new, but even the most humble can contain superb examples of craftsmanship and design that still delight owners and their guests. 

They were also modern, with electricity, indoor plumbing, gas in some cases, and very up to date and functional kitchens and bathrooms.  

Where you see one bungalow there are often twins, triplets, a dozen, or a score. Many bungalows were built as part of “tract” or “suburban” developments as streetcar lines and road improvements opened up convenient access to areas beyond the 19th century urban core. 

In the Bay Area, Oakland and Alameda have many bungalows and some neighborhoods like Rockridge are just thick with them. Berkeley’s bungalows are perhaps fewer and more scattered, but they are here. 

Original bungalows are now quite venerable and, as is often the case with the aged, they’ve been subjected over the decades to efforts of the young to improve or even remove them. 

As early as the 1930 and 1940s houses in the Bay Area, including some bungalows, were being “modernized” with features such as garages burrowed beneath the front façade and exteriors mummified in featureless stucco. 

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, “remodels” often meant atrocities of asbestos siding, painted-over woodwork, brick and tile, acoustic ceilings, aluminum windows, torn out built-ins, or big sculptural porch columns replaced with spindly metal posts. 

In more recent years popular “updates” have included vinyl windows, rears of bungalows demolished or gutted beyond recognition for the creation of “great rooms” and “chef’s kitchens,” and huge master suite additions atop small houses like overloaded baggage on a camel. 

Improper remodeling and disrespectful treatment of bungalows are passionate themes for Powell, sort of bungalow bugaboos. She’s a leading, emphatic, proponent of keeping the character of bungalows intact. 

“Updating” all or part of a house in some trendy current style imposed on top of or in place of the original character simply means the remodel will come, in time, to appear outdated as well. If you doubt this, think of the last refreshing, exciting, modern-looking 1970s kitchen you visited.  

Powell argues in her writing that if you buy a nice old house, however worn and battered, you should feel some obligation to retain, or restore, its character, rather than altering everything. Don’t try to radically change a house you don’t like or that doesn’t “suit your needs”; perhaps even consider buying a house you do like. 

This is not to say some interventions, such as upgrades to mechanical systems or room additions, shouldn’t be done, but they should be as contextual as possible. 

One of things that makes Jane Powell an excellent resource is that she has extensive experience actually working on local bungalows—from stripping paint, to getting permits, to finding the right door hardware—rather than simply a theoretical knowledge.  

She’s bought and renovated several, advised on others, and written several books that should be in the home library of every bungalow owner. 

Her books outline the proper approach and outcome for each bungalow project, but also offer options of “Obsessive Restoration” (do it like they did it back then, with the same materials and processes) or “Compromise Solution” (that still fits in well, but substitutes modern materials or techniques). 

She also has a great turn of phase. An example from Bungalow Interiors: 

“Many people tell me they never use their dining room and I always reply, ‘Why? Is there a force field around it?’ Even if you don’t eat there, it makes a fabulous library.” Or this chapter heading about bungalow heating upgrades, “Many are cold, but few are frozen.” 

Every page of a Powell book offers some well researched, interesting, insight or practical advice. I hope her lecture will be the same. Afterwards, as at past lectures in the series, there should be great cookies, and an opportunity to buy books at a discount and get them signed.