Honoring Jane Powell

By Robert Brokl
Friday January 04, 2013 - 01:24:00 PM

Jane Powell’s website was wittily entitled “Jane Powell—the Author, not the Actress!,” but I think she has a connection in more than surname with another author out of the Midwest, Dawn Powell (The Golden Spur, My Home is Far Away). Like Jane reaching the Bay area by way of Detroit (her birthplace), Indiana, and Medford, Dawn Powell fled rural Ohio for Manhattan and never looked back. The other Powell—Dawn—is enjoying a revival thanks to the ministrations of fans like Gore Vidal and Tim Page, her biographer. Hopefully, Jane Powell’s classic writings on everything bungalow in particular and preservation (and older homes) in general will never go out of fashion nor be forgotten. 

Jane’s enduring contribution, her legacy, will rest upon her exhaustive, informative, stylishly written books: Bungalow Bathrooms and Kitchens, Bungalow Details: Exterior, and articles and essays too numerous to mention. Her immensely readable, practical books were beautifully furnished with photographs by her friend, Linda Svendsen, who died before her, also of cancer. 

But others have written on the subjects Jane covered, without sparking such a loyal following. As time passes, and her friends gain some distance after the intense grief over her passing, I suspect many of us will remember her most for her pluck and resilience, and for her militancy on behalf of preservation. 

I won’t claim never to having heard Jane whine, but mostly I remember her grit and determination. She enjoyed a period of living the privileged life in a glorious house on The Uplands in Berkeley. Since this was before we met as fellow Oakland Heritage Alliance board members, I asked her how she and Steve, her husband, occupied their time since I don’t think either of them had to work—Steve coming from Old Money. Jane said that Steve collected vintage typewriters, a hobby which seemed emblematic of an unhurried life of leisure. When that idyll ended (his choice), as hard as that must have been for her, she began her project of buying houses, fixing and restoring (NEVER gutting them like some ignorant flipper) and then selling them, moving on to the next. 

We all know the Bungamansion became the keeper house, her beloved fixer, but there were perhaps a half dozen before that. Her process involved having the floors refinished first, covering them with heavy kraft paper, and then moving in as she began the work, much of which she did herself. Who knows if she didn’t contract lymphoma and then metastatic lung cancer from long term exposure to the chemicals and solvents she lived and worked around and with? But she was proud of her restoration efforts, bragging about changing Oakland “one house at a time.” 

Jane’s resolve, independence, and pluck were a big reason, I think, she was such an inspiration for other women (and gay men). She was just as purposeful when it came to her writing, putting in the long hours at her desk, meeting the deadlines. Jane was a spartan—she never smoked or drank, and the only drugs were for her illnesses. 

The meager financial return realized from the books was surely a disappointment, but she accepted the writing jobs like Linoleum that her publisher assigned her (and came to love linoleum patterns that she sprinkled throughout her blog, Restoration Comedy). She was immensely proud of the checks from talks she gave, or articles she wrote, not unlike even the Immortals like Virginia Woolf valuing the compensation and security that came with articles and essays in the mass circulation periodicals of her day. 

Jane was also a committed advocate for preservation, and not just in her writing. She said, “No building should be torn down” and, while partly that may have been rhetorical, she also meant every word of it. We were on the same side in the losing, painful battle to save the Montgomery Ward Building in the Fruitvale, and the successful efforts to save the Fox Theater and Floral Depot. She became essentially the compromise choice for OHA president after the notorious divide between the Elders and the Militants split the organization, but the group lost its edge anyway, and Jerry Brown had his way and left his mark.... 

It wasn’t for Jane to angle for a job with the City (although those jobs were offered to other activists). She would have relished the opportunity to help revise and update the City of Oakland’s Planning Department’s Rehab Right from 1978—I once saw her wile away the hours at a tedious Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board meeting scribbling notes for that never-to-be revision. She also wasn’t going to play the familiar “professional preservationist” game of trading one “facadomy” or a pocket of change for facade improvement “mitigations”, in exchange for unnecessary demolitions. 

Although Jane and I were longtime friends (and argued occasionally as friends are known to do), I’m struck by people who’ve complained they were victims of Jane’s fiery rhetoric, or noted her adamancy. Was it her red hair they were reacting to, or was I of such similar sentiment that she seemed the epitome of reason (although she wrote about “obsessive restoration” from much firsthand experience)? 

Jane’s individuality, her courage and independence, her wit are irreplaceable. One can only hope that, unlike Dawn Powell who was documenting the mid-twentieth century Manhattan vanishing all around her, Jane Powell’s legacy will be the bungalows that find loving, more knowledgeable (thanks to her) admirers, and people who don’t easily give up even when “Life backs up a giant truck full of lemons and dumps them on me”, as Jane put it, having the last words as usual.