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Chatting with the “Bad Girl of Bungalow Writing”

May 5, 2011

This weekend, to help celebrate the Norwood neighborhood’s centennial, author and lecturer Jane Powell will be visiting Birmingham from northern California.  She has published six books about bungalows and bungalow style, including specific topics such as kitchens, bathrooms, exteriors, interiors, and linoleum.

Be sure to catch Jane Powell at Vulcan Park on Saturday, May 7, 2011.  Her talk starts at 9:30 a.m.  Details available through the Norwood web site.

This week I caught up with Powell via email.  She was kind enough to answer my questions about her books and what is so special about Birmingham’s bungalows.

How did you become the “bad girl of bungalow writing”?

I was bestowed that title by Eve Kahn, who was reviewing one of my books for Style 1900. It’s more politically correct than the other title bestowed on me by a house blog in Florida: “Bungalow Nazi.” I suspect it has to do with the fact that I tend to be opinionated, and I don’t sugarcoat those opinions, like “Stainless steel is the avocado green of the 21st century.”

What sparked your interest in restoration and preservation?

I always liked old houses, and the first house I bought back in 1987 was a bungalow. I had always fixed up the places I lived, even rentals, so naturally I did that to the house I bought as well. One thing that particularly influenced me was the book Rehab Right, published initially by the City of Oakland and later by Tenspeed Press. The house inspector told me to get a copy, and that plus a subscription to the Old House Journal was my initial education.

Why bungalows?

As I said, the first house I bought was a bungalow. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a bungalow, but since it is the dominant house type around here, it almost became a joke during the house search. It was kind of a slippery slope. Shortly after buying the house, I took a trip to the Gamble House, and it was pretty much downhill from there, so to speak. After the first bungalow, I got the idea that I liked fixing up houses and maybe wanted to do that for a living, so using the proceeds from house #2 combined with the alimony I got for a few years after my divorce, I embarked on a career as a serial restorer (before they were called “flippers”). I’ve fixed up 11 houses total.

You published the kitchens and bathrooms books in 2000 and 2001, but then switched to the more general Bungalow Details books in 2004 and 2006.   Now that the updated versions of the kitchens and bathrooms books have been published, do you plan to return to the “room specific” theme?  If so, what rooms will be next?  

I got the idea for the kitchen book in 1997 – there was an obvious need. Bathrooms seemed a natural follow-up. The third book was actually Linoleum. (To say it didn’t sell well would be an understatement.) I had actually had the idea for the Details books even before Bungalow Kitchens – it just took awhile to get around to it. The Details books do actually cover all the rooms, so the next book, if I ever get around to it, will be on interior colors for bungalows.

Are you working on any new books right now?

Nope – had to get a day job in the economic downturn – doesn’t leave much energy for book writing.

How did you learn about Birmingham’s bungalows?

I met Tom Creger at the Grove Park Arts and Crafts Conference in Asheville, NC. He asked if I would come and speak in Birmingham. Later on we came to the idea of featuring Birmingham bungalows in the talk instead of just doing one of my regular lectures. He sent me a whole bunch of photos to use.

What is so special about Birmingham’s bungalows?

The first thing I noticed is that almost all of them have front facing gables rather than side gables (a side gable has the ridge line parallel to the street, a front gable has a ridge line perpendicular to the street). A side gabled bungalow with a dormer was the most popular style nationwide, so that’s a significant variation. The next thing I noticed was that almost none of them have exposed rafter tails – now, exposed rafter tails look great but they are a really stupid idea, prone to rot from being exposed to the weather and requiring constant maintenance. And because of the bungalow ideal of local materials, almost all of them have whatever the local stone around Birmingham happens to be.

What are some of the things you plan to address in your talk at Vulcan Park for Norwood’s Centennial Hard Hat Tour?

I’m basically going to explain what a bungalow is, how they came to be associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement in the U.S., and then compare and contrast your local bungalows with bungalows from elsewhere, so people can see both the similarities and the differences. There will be a preservation rant included, as well.

For those who are not familiar with the arts and crafts style and, especially, Birmingham’s collection of bungalows, what would you like the city’s residents to know about it?

That bungalows, though modest, are eminently worth saving, even though they aren’t big fancy houses by famous architects. Much of preservation has been focused on saving “trophy buildings,” while the buildings where ordinary people lived and worked are demolished by the hundreds every single day. Bungalows are still easily adaptable to 21st century life, bungalow neighborhoods tend to be walkable and transit-oriented, since most started out as “streetcar suburbs,” and it’s much greener to restore an existing building than to tear it down and put up a LEED-certified new building. Bungalows were built with old growth timber and a quality of materials which are no longer even available. They were the affordable housing of their time, and they are still affordable.

Jane’s books are available at Amazon.

Check out my article on Magic City Post about the Norwood Hard Hat Tour.

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