Neighborhood Magic

Walking down the street in a residential neighborhood, you think that all the houses are pretty much the same and there isn’t anything special happening.  You sure can be wrong.

Our friends Kevin and Dave took us to see the incredible home of Paul and Robin Cowley, in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.  A 700 square foot Sears Roebuck house, the kind you bought from a catalog and they shipped pre-fab on a train, the house was built in 1927.  Robin and Paul have remodeled and expanded, of course, and now have a 2000 square foot one bedroom home with extensive studio space for both of them–Paul is the wizard behind Potomac Waterworks, which designs water features for places like the deYoung museum.  Robin is both a garden designer and a textile artist.

The house is wonderful, but the garden is spectacular.  As you would expect, this house has the most astounding water features I’ve ever seen.  Essentially, Paul has created a bog with flowing water, grasses, reeds, a koi pond, some waterfalls, a fountain or two and enough machinery to launch the space shuttle.  Robin has created a variety of garden types, utilizing plants from all over.  The stands of  bamboo  are so dense I was looking for a herd of pandas.

I’m don’t know much about plants, so instead of speculating wildly and being wrong, I think I’ll just show you a ton of photos of this magnificent place.  Enjoy them all, and when you drive down a quite residential street, remember that this is what might be lurking behind the gate.


Artistic sleight of hand is at work here–you can’t see through this stainless steel structure manufactured by the Stamping Simulation team, so they put mirrors in the squares to fool you into thinking you are.



Another optical illusion–more mirrors to make you think you can see through the wall.



A garden isn’t complete without art–here you see a “dango” by noted Japanese sculptor Jun Kaneko.

Looking across the expanse of the water installation.


Paul enjoying one of the many places to sit and enjoy. There were at least 5 sets of wind chimes, too.


Gail and I loved this ceramic piece.



The muscle behind the magic.


No, the view doesn’t go on forever–they’ve fooled you again with a mirror behind that sculpture.


A stand of black bamboo. I don’t know how they get it to grow in Oakland.


The ‘folly’–a small structure that is purely decorative. In a strong wind, the two sides of the roof will rise up and “clap”


After touring the garden, we went into the house to visit their extensive collection of art, mostly ceramic.

Inside Robin’s studio. These boxes are love letter from Robin’s father to her mother during WWII. She folded them into boxes and lacquered them.


Trompe l’oeil sculpture. The entire piece is ceramic.


Robin Cowley, Dave Larson and Gail in the kitchen.


A hall full of art.


The other side of the hall–there is an astonishing amount of art in a fairly small house.


One more large vessel.


Incredible gardens outside, formidable ceramic collection inside; the Cowley’s have an astonishing home.  Gail realized that she had seen it before–two years ago on a day trip with the Oakland Museum Art Guild.  She enjoyed this time more, because there were just the 6 of us instead of a busload trying to make their way through the space.

After our visit, we returned to Kevin and Dave’s house behind the Apple store in Berkeley.  Dave, a former Apple executive, spent some of his vacations at the Cordon Bleu in Paris taking cooking lessons.  He delighted us with lunch:

Red snapper poached in heirloom tomatoes, wine, butter and garlic. C’est magnifique.


Broccolini with parmesean


Sated with great art and stuffed with Dave’s formidable cooking, we wandered home and collapsed.  Life is good.





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