'It galls me that all these house-and-garden shows called 'restoration something' are showing people who own an old building, and the very first thing they say is, 'Well, we had to gut it,'" says preservationist and author Jane Powell. "If you had to gut it, then that isn't restoration. Restoration is keeping what's there, repairing the parts that are damaged, and adding new parts that are made of the same thing or look the same for things that are just beyond repair. It doesn't have anything to do with gutting." On Saturday, January 20, Powell will give a lecture regarding the preservation of bungalows, followed by a walking tour through Mission Hills. She was invited by Mission Hills Heritage as part of the community organization's celebration of its 99th anniversary.
In California, most bungalows were built between 1900 and 1930. The majority of those were built between 1908 and the mid-1920s, at which point they began to lose popularity to Spanish-revival styles.
"The good thing about bungalows and early-20th-century houses, in general, is they did have most of the stuff that we consider modern, like indoor plumbing and central heat," explains Powell, who has written six books (with photos by Linda Svendsen) about bungalow restoration. "It's not like you're trying to put a modern functioning kitchen in a house that was built in 1783. Especially in the bathrooms -- [except for] low-flow toilets, we're pretty much using the same plumbing [technology]."
Powell has owned and restored 11 bungalows in the Oakland area. Two stand out in her mind. The first was a 1920s bungalow that was occupied by the same family that had purchased it in 1930. "The parents lived there until they died, and then the son lived there until he died, and I bought it on probate," Powell recalls. "The son was a lifelong bachelor who was a detective for the railroad company, and he smoked. The whole thing was covered with a very thick layer of nicotine. It was filthy, but it also pretty much hadn't been touched."
The only change to the structure had been made in the '50s when the original owners covered the hexagonal tiles on the bathroom floor with turquoise linoleum. "It came off fairly easily, and I was able to restore the floor. The original hex was underneath," says Powell. "The black mastic stuff, the adhesive, wasn't hard to get off of the tiles, but it was hard to get out of the grout. The kitchen, except for the addition of new appliances, had not really been touched. Mostly that one was about cleaning up the nicotine."
The other bungalow Powell remembers had belonged to a woman in her 90s who sold it to Powell prior to moving in with her son. The house had a small neighborhood grocery store built into the front and a basement for storing products and supplies. "She and her husband had been operating it from around 1952 [when they purchased the home] until 1978, when her husband died. They closed the store, but a lot of the store stuff was still in there. She was a pack rat."
When Powell first visited the home, it was so cluttered that she had to climb over piles of junk and refuse in order to get past the front door. Receipts dating back to the '50s were found.
But there was a positive side to the hoarding: "Even though they ripped stuff out of the house, they didn't throw it away." The kitchen cabinets had been replaced with "ugly plywood things," but Powell found all of the original cupboards and drawers, along with their hardware, in the basement. By adding an extra bathroom and restoring the cabinets, floors, and countertops, Powell managed to make the bungalow look like an updated version of its debut in 1926.
Powell insists that new appliances should match the existing kitchen for a timeless appeal. "One of the phrases I hate is when a designer says, 'We wanted to mix the old with the contemporary.' It's, like, 'No, you really don't want to do that'....
"Someday stainless steel will be viewed the same as avocado green is viewed now."
Mission Hills Preservationist Lecture and Guided Walk with Jane Powell Saturday, January 20 12:30 p.m.
4201 Randolph Street Mission Hills Cost: $20 members; $30 nonmembers Info: 619-497-1193 or www.missionhillsheritage.org