Home renovator fights to save her historic bungalow
on February 10, 2012
Jane Powell traces her fingers over the dark wood paneling in her living room. The afternoon glow seeps through the curtains, casting light on an assortment of vintage chairs and an antique coin-operated piano nestled in the corner.
The solid wood that comprises Powell’s home has not been touched since it was constructed in 1905. It is, in her words, a “festival of old Douglas fir.”
“I like to joke that the wood in this house is worth more than the house itself,” Powell says.
Powell fell in love with her Arts and Crafts-era bungalow while organizing an East Bay house tour in 1996 and she purchased the property once it became available six years later. Friends dubbed her 3,800 sq. ft. home the “Bunga-Mansion” and, indeed, it dwarfs Powell, a petite woman with thin-rimmed glasses and red hair styled in a bob with bangs. The exterior looks like a mix between a pagoda and Viking ship.
Although Powell calls this place home, it’s more like a time machine — almost everything inside from the cabinets to the toilet bowls are the same ones that were installed over a century ago.
Powell has seen hundreds and hundreds of Arts and Crafts bungalows but this one, she says, is special. She has written six books about home renovations and has fixed up 11 old homes, selling all but the Bunga-Mansion—she calls herself the “bad girl of bungalow writing.”
But Powell fears she may soon be a home renovator without a home.
Powell underwent treatment for an aggressive lymphoma in 2000, but relapsed into a chronic form of that cancer in 2006. Two years later, the economy crashed and Powell lost most of her income sources. She had made her money writing, lecturing and doing home renovation consultations. But, simply put, people suffering through an economic depression were not interested in fixing up old homes. Between her medical bills and decreased income, Powell decided to apply for a mortgage modification with GMAC Mortgage in 2010, hoping that lowering the monthly payment might ease her financial duress.
Powell’s lender didn’t agree to the modification. Until recently, she figured out how to continue paying the full monthly mortgage, selling personal possessions to come up with the cash and renting out rooms of the Bunga-Mansion. Powell ran out of resources in the fall and fears the bank may foreclose on her home, but her friends are rallying behind her, planning a benefit for the Bunga-Mansion this Sunday in the historic home itself.
Powell knows the history of almost every nook and cranny of her exceptional house. She can describe every unique feature of the freestanding, asymmetrical fireplace in the center of her living room or the massive wood paneling throughout the downstairs.
Jesse Matteson, owner of the Fruitvale Lumberyard, designed and built the home with massive, solid Douglas fir. Matteson’s lumberyard went bankrupt due to a recession in 1908, just three years after he built the bungalow, and he lost the house in 1912, Powell said.
The Bunga-Mansion transformed over the years as it passed from owner to owner, and even had a stint as a hippie commune. The tennis court Matteson built was replaced with an apartment building that runs adjacent to the bungalow and the one-car garage with an additional “party room” was also torn down at some point. But most of the home is still intact, something rare for a house that’s over a century old.
Powell considers herself to be an ideal steward to the home, particularly because of her extensive knowledge of old home renovations and her dedication to maintaining the bungalow’s pristine condition. But she has certainly added her own pizzazz. Powell is the kind of woman who says, “I have to warn you that I have a mannequin,” before leading guests into her bedroom. Indeed, staring at intruders with startlingly piercing eyes is Betty the Bitch, Powell’s 1980’s mannequin complete with a green dress, Mardi Gras beads and a beige hat.
The Bunga-Mansion, filled with antiques and knick-knacks, has its share of quirks, too. One of the seats of a built-in bench, for example, can be lifted up to expose a laundry chute that descends into the belly of the home. Powell’s bedroom leads onto a “sleeping porch,” a balcony intended for napping on warm nights.
Some things—like the reason why the home has two front doors—remain a mystery. Powell has created possible scenarios for everything she doesn’t know, like a historical detective compiling clues. Old photos reveal that the dining room, accessible directly through one of the doors, had a nine-foot round table that seated up to 19 people. The Mattesons were some of the first Americans to convert to the Baha’i faith, in which the numbers nine and 19 are sacred, Powell says. “My theory is that before there was ever any Baha’i center, they met here,” she says. Perhaps the second door was a way for them to directly enter the meeting space.
“I jumped through all their hoops and they did offer me a temporary modification,” Powell says. But banks often deny making modifications permanent after a few months and will then send a bill that includes late fees and the difference between the cost of the original and modified mortgages. Such a bill can cost thousands of dollars. If Powell is issued such a bill within the next few months, she worries she might not be able to pay and that the bank will claim her home.
“You don’t even know what tactics to use because you don’t even know what they want,” Powell says. “I’m trying to tell them that there will be a huge blowout [if the bank forecloses]. The house is famous. I am famous.”
Few live in homes like the Bunga-Mansion, but millions of Californians from all walks of life understand the pain of foreclosure. In 2011, one in every 31 California housing units had at least one foreclosure filing, according to RealtyTrac reports. Homes along Sunset Avenue in Oakland, where the Bunga-Mansion sits, have not fared well in recent years, either—at least three nearby houses have been foreclosed upon or sold in short sales in recent years.
Powell worries that if her home is foreclosed upon, the bank will not put in the proper maintenance. “Houses that have been taken over by banks become blighted,” she says. “Banks have not been good stewards of the houses they’re foreclosing on.”
Because it is a historical structure, her home was granted a Mills Act Contract three years ago, meaning that the home has a reduced annual property tax assessment for 10 years if the owner pledges to keep up with renovations. Powell hopes that if she is unable to continue paying for her home, she could find a buyer who appreciates the history and could afford upkeep. Worst-case scenario? The bank takes over the home and does nothing to protect or upkeep the property, letting it fall prey to looters, squatters and blight.
The benefit will be held on Sunday night in the Bunga-Mansion and will include a silent auction, live music, food and a martini bar.
“One of the things we’re hoping is that it will inspire people to put on benefits for their friends,” Powell says. “But you can also say ‘Why are we doing this?’ The government should have stepped in … But it hasn’t happened.”
Powell jokes about her financial problems and even cancer, but she does not joke much about the bungalow or how much it means to her. As she stand in the driveway talking about some of the interesting exterior features like the swooping Scandinavian-style roof, she pauses for a moment and looks up at her home.
“It’s just … eccentric,” she says, with a pause. “It’s just … I dunno, a really special house. I feel honored that I get to have it.”
There are still so many renovations that Powell wants to do—everything from fixing up the rafter tails outside to finishing a kitchen renovation that she started in 2006. “It deserves to be restored,” she says of the house. “It really probably deserves to be a house museum.”
But first Powell will do what she can to continue negotiating with her lender to hold onto the house. “Unless, you know, I win the lottery,” she says.
The benefit for Powell and her bungalow will be held on February 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 per person or $40 per couple. Those interested in attending should RSVP to Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts by calling (510) 655-3841 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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