Jane Powell was a woman who loved her home.
Powell, an author and home restoration expert who died in November 2012 from lung cancer, spent the final years of her life fighting the bank to keep her dream home, Oakland’s historical Jesse Matteson House, fondly nicknamed the Bunga-Mansion by Powell and her friends. After losing most of her income during the financial crash of 2008, Powell rallied to keep her home from going into foreclosure, all while struggling with illness. Powell maintained her characteristic pluck through her sarcastic, occasionally self-deprecating, posts about her life in the Bunga-Mansion on a blog she called Restoration Comedy.
In a post from February 2012 entitled “When Life Hands You Lemons,” Powell wrote: “Throw them back and scream, ‘I don’t want any effing lemons!’ If life has handed you a whole bushel of lemons, you could make enough lemonade for a lifetime, assuming you had somewhere to store it, because lemonade uses a lot of water, a lot of sugar, and hardly any lemon juice.”
But now, although she did not live to see it, Powell’s tragicomedic struggle to preserve the Bunga-Mansion may have a happy ending. Powell’s family is hopeful her legacy will live on through a potential sale to friends who want to preserve her vision for the home.
Powell, a petite woman with red hair and glasses, was born in Detroit and moved to California when she was 9 years old. She and her two sisters loved art, and she received her college degree in fashion design. “People said we had the Martha Stewart gene,” said Mary Enderle, Powell’s sister.
Powell restored a total of 11 houses throughout her life. Her interest in older homes began when she bought her first bungalow in 1987. She knew a bit about the Arts and Crafts movement and began reading Old House Journal and books on renovation methods. She sold that house, married, and remodeled a second home in Berkeley with her husband.
When the couple divorced, Powell poured her life into home restoration. She worked on places carefully for a year or two before reselling them, often taking on the more difficult tasks herself, Powell’s friend Robert Brokl said. “It maybe took her longer than some people,” he said with a laugh. “But she wasn’t above rolling up her sleeves and getting dirty. She was pretty handy with tools and liked to work on her houses herself.”
She wrote six books about home renovations, with a focus on Arts and Crafts style bungalows. Brokl, who met Powell while they were both serving on the board of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, said her books are used today as a resource and reference in places like furniture and tile stores. “They have Bungalow Kitchens and Bungalow Bathrooms for people to get ideas from,” he said. “You find her books in unexpected places. People who don’t even know her find her books useful and helpful.”
Powell also wrote for a number of local publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle and The Berkeley Daily Planet. Ralph Kanz, a friend who met Powell while working together at the now-defunct Oakland News, said Powell had an affinity for puns, and would often argue with the Oakland News editor, another friend of hers, about the wisecracks in her writing. When that editor passed away in 2004, Powell wrote a memorial story, which was her only piece Kanz could remember that didn’t include a pun.
Powell was known for having strong, often rebellious, opinions. Her articles sparked debate about whether renovating old structures was better for the environment then constructing new, “eco-friendly” buildings in their place. “Everyone is embracing green building as if they were French kissing George Clooney,” she joked in a San Francisco Chronicle article.
As a remodeler, Powell saw hundreds of houses, but fell in love the “Bunga-Mansion,” a century-old Arts and Crafts bungalow in the Fruitvale neighborhood, while organizing an East Bay house tour in 1996. She bought the house when it went on the market six years later. “I would say this house was truly like the love of her life,” Enderle said. “She lived and breathed it.”
The colossal 3,800 square foot home on Sunset Avenue looks like a cross between a pagoda and a Viking ship, and much of it has been unaltered since its construction in 1905. From the solid Douglas fir and redwood used to build the house to the rafter tails outside, it was a unique structure that required an expert hand. Jane sold the other houses she fixed up, but knew this would be the place she lived for the rest of her life.
“She overlooked the problems of the neighborhood,” Brokl said. “She ignored the smell of fish tacos wafting up from Fruitvale. She ignored the crime. It’s on a nice little hidden street. …The house is very period and remarkably intact. And, inside, she found a great sense of quiet and peace.”
Powell and the Bunga-Mansion were even profiled in a book called A Home of Her Own, which featured women who had special bonds with their houses.
Powell spent much of the final years of her life fighting disease and financial troubles. After undergoing treatment for an aggressive lymphoma in 2000, she relapsed into a chronic form of cancer in 2006, which eventually went into remission.
When the economy crashed in 2008, Powell’s main sources of income—writing, lecturing and home consulting gigs—were hard to come by and she struggled to pay her mortgage. In 2010, she applied for a modification on her home loan that the bank initially denied. Serious about keeping the Bunga-Mansion, she sold personal possessions and rented out rooms of the house. Friends rallied behind her, forming a group called “Friends of Jane Powell” to help her host a party to raise funds for the house.
I met Powell last February when she was gearing up for the benefit. What I expected to be a brief tour and interview turned into hours of exploring the house and talking about Powell’s life. I scribbled notes madly as she rattled off details about everything from the living room’s freestanding clinker brick fireplace to the bathroom’s toilet bowls, which were original to the home. She stopped to pet her cats and showed me the quirky touches she added to the bungalow, like the mannequin in her bedroom.
At times, she spoke casually about living in what seemed to essentially be a museum but, at other times, she seemed to still be in awe of her home. Just before I snapped a photo of her—dwarfed by the exterior of the Bunga-Mansion—she stopped and looked back at the house. “It’s just … eccentric,” she said. “It’s just … I dunno, a really special house. I feel honored that I get to have it.”
The fundraiser for Powell and the house attracted about 300 people, far more than expected. Friends and fans donated money and wrote letters to the bank. At the event, Powell seemed genuinely happy, Brokl said. Soon after, an MRI revealed that a pain in Powell’s lower back was actually a metastatic lung cancer that had begun to spread all over her body. “It was a stunning defeat after a stunning victory,” Brokl said. “After lobbying with the bank—and after the bank actually did revise her loan—she didn’t live long enough to see what she had won.”
For Powell, who told her readers and friends that she never smoked, the diagnosis of lung cancer was shocking. In March 2012, Powell wrote a follow up to “When Life Hands You Lemons,” in which she revealed her diagnosis. “I haven’t posted since ‘When Life Hands You Lemons’ because life has just handed me some,” she wrote. “No, not handed—more like backed up a giant truck full of lemons and dumped them on me.”
When Powell realized she was in the last months of her life, her friends came together to clean the house, cook and take Powell to doctor’s appointments. Her three cats were never far from her side, often nuzzling beside her as she slept. Meanwhile, Powell’s family tried to find someone who could work to buy the house from the bank.
Kanz said Powell may have held on to life as long as she could in hopes of meeting the next owner of the Bunga-Mansion. “She wanted to see that house preserved and saved,” he said. “And that the right person would get it and try to do with it what in her mind was the right way in terms of restoring it.”
Not long before her death, her hopes were answered. Enderle said a couple who once enlisted Powell’s help to remodel their kitchen and bathroom announced that they wanted to buy the house and live there with their children. Enderle said the couple told her, “Whenever [we] talk about what we want to do with our house, we look at each other and say, ‘What would Jane do?’”
Four days before Powell died, some of the family members came to look at the house and had a moment to speak with Jane. “At the end, the tumors in the brain made it hard for her to process everything,” Enderle said. “But I saw the light in her eyes when she saw [them].”
Enderle, who met with some members of the family the day before her sister passed away, said they strongly share Powell’s vision for restoring the home. “They wanted to live in the house, love the house,” she said. “I told [Jane] they told me that day that they were totally smitten with the house. I think it was part of the reason she was finally able to let go.”
Powell died in the Bunga-Mansion on November 11. She was surrounded by family, friends, and her cats.
The home’s potential buyers are currently working with Powell’s family bank to negotiate a sale, Enderle said. In the meantime, the home is being cared for. Two of Jane’s cats, Maya and Tasha, are living with a friend. Her other cat, Piper, will stay with the family in the Bunga-Mansion if the sale goes through.
A memorial for Powell will be held on January 19. Because of limited space, the family asks that those interested in attending get in touch with Mary Enderle for details at menderle [at] enderlegroup [dot] com.