At Long Last, Love: Jane Powell

  

It’s midsummer in Oakland, California—a perfect 65 degrees, with agapanthus and crocosmia exploding all around. The gentle breeze rustles a cascade of bougainvillea trained against the shingle siding of Jane Powell’s house, which Kendall Reeves has just photographed for our book, A Home of Her Own.

Jane—author, period design consultant, and historic preservationist—is grilling chicken in her lush back yard. But despite the balmy setting, this will be no déjeuner sur l’herbe. Fearless and resourceful, Jane is more likely to be romancing a bungalow with blowtorch and hammer than picnicking (never mind picnicking naked) with a couple of dandies.

We arrived yesterday afternoon, following a pre-dawn drive and cross-country flight via Chicago. After hurtling beneath San Francisco Bay on the BART (mildly distressing, considering the area’s earthquake-prone geology), we found ourselves delivered to the rim of the subway’s maw, where a musician strumming exotic tunes on a Japanese koto provided a surreal conclusion to our fourteen-hour trip.

Jane picked us up and drove us to her home, the 1905 Jesse Matteson House, which perches atop a hill so steep that her concrete driveway has a set of steps cast up its center to provide safe footing for the morning paper run.

I had often seen this house in print and wondered why it seemed always to be shot from the same few angles, with acres of Douglas fir paneling as the primary focus. Don’t get me wrong; the paneling is extraordinary, both for its design and sheer quantity. But surely there was more to this interior than glorious millwork?

Now I understood why certain other parts of the house didn’t usually make their way into print. As Jane showed us around the kitchen (raw plywood floor, cabinets not yet fitted with doors and drawer faces, visquene over the window), living room (where ten-foot-long bundles of molding ranged across the floor), and dining room (tools, cans of shellac, and fir trim stacked on sawhorses), I was gripped by mild panic. What was my photographer thinking? Was he silently cursing me for having brought him halfway across the country to photograph this house?

An authentic Jane Powell bungalow kitchen in the making

There was also the question of where we would be sleeping. Jane had generously invited us to stay with her. I imagined she might have thought we were a couple, but we’re not. For the past few days I’d been rehearsing this moment, wondering whether I would muster the guts to ask Kendall to share a bed. When the moment arrived, I chickened out and volunteered to sleep on the living room floor.

Fortunately, we soon realized the photography would go perfectly well if Kendall simply worked with the reality at hand—a majestic old house in the midst of being painstakingly restored by a live-in professional with vision, knowledge, and experience, but not a lot of money. Accordingly, in the dining room, Kendall framed his shots to avoid the evidence of work being done. Instead, he focused on the gorgeous woodwork, the original pendant ceiling fixtures, and the striking citron bronze walls. In the living room, we transferred the bundles of molding to the far edge of the floor and made a fire in the clinker-brick fireplace, and voila! the room was able to express its full-blown Jane Powell-bungalow character. In the kitchen, we adhered a critical length of vertical door casing to the wall with double-sided tape, and I held the head casing in place just outside of the frame while Kendall shot the picture.

The living room floor turned out to be a wonderful place to sleep. The space can be closed off from the entry area by a pocket door (though perhaps this pocket door should be described as “a pocket door on steroids,” given its eight- by eight-foot dimensions). Waking at dawn, I pulled the blanket up around me and savored the cool air wafting through the old casement windows, sensing the Adirondack-style cabin refuge this place would have been, originally, and admiring Jane’s audacity in taking on such a marvelous challenge.

Kendall with Jane’s beautiful orange tabby, Piper

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?cPath=1037_1100&products_id=734207

Jane’s website is http://www.artisticlicense.org/members/powell/index.html

 

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