The NorCal Explorer

Some of my photos are now for sale at ImageKind.

Nature Index
(My hiking and camping adventures in Northern California.)

Culture Index
(NorCal cities, highways, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic attractions, vintage neon signs, roadside attractions, etc.)

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Napa History: The A-1 Cafe

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Neon sign from the A-1 Cafe in the Napa Opera House Building

Napa History: The A-1 Cafe


Chinese immigrants Chin Yan Ing Low and Yuen Low opened Napa’s A-1 Café on Saturday, June 23, 1934 at 1018 Main St. in the Napa Hotel building on the northeast corner of Main and First. In 1947 the Napa Hotel building, which was considered a firetrap, was razed. The A-1 Café moved to the building next door, the opera house, and continued operation at 1028 Main St. It may be at this time that the A-1 Chop Suey neon sign was installed.

A 1937 advertisement for the restaurant in the Napa Daily Register gives the most detailed description of it I have seen: “Our specialty is Chop Suey and Chow Mein. Also other Chinese and American dishes. Chinese candles of all kinds. Lichee nuts. Beers of all kinds on ice.” I’m assuming that means bottles of beer chilled in ice, rather than beer poured over ice in glasses.

Yuen Low died some time between 1940 and 1948, but his wife Chin, also known as Mamma, continued running the restaurant until her retirement in December of 1967. At that time Yuen Low’s younger brother, Henry Wong Owyeong, and his wife, Mary Ng Owyeong, took over operations. They had been helping out at the restaurant since 1959. The Wongs, as they were generally known in Napa, expanded the business by opening two other Chinese restaurants in Napa. Despite much speculation over the fate of the opera house and several different plans for the property, the A-1 Café continued to operate through the 1970s, finally closing in 1982.

Where has the sign been since then and how did I come to photograph it? I’m not willing to share that information until the sign is in possession of the new caretaker who has been found for it.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Napa History: The Art of Edward Brown


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The Art of Edward Brown

Dedicated to Nancy Brennan, the historian of Tulocay Cemetery, where many of Edward Brown’s works of art are to be found.

Along the edge of the property of Third Street Auto Repair, often partially obscured by customers’ cars along the street, stands the remains of a cobblestone wall, graced with a massive cobblestone urn on the west end. Across the sidewalk (towards the street), two fine planters with the letter B ornately inscribed on their base, but never filled with vegetation, complete the incongruous scene. The inscription at the base of the urn offers some clues to the meaning of it all” 19 DEEP SPRING 12” and “PUBLIC REST STATION EDW. BROWN DESIGNER” with the “ROW” in Brown completely effaced and illegible.

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The property at 441 Third Street, right next to the north entrance to the Napa Valley Expo, has long been the site of an auto repair shop. Vito J. Grossi established Grossi’s Garage at the site after buying the property from the Brown family in 1945. But when the Browns owned it, it was obviously something different.

Edward P. Brown was born in Benicia in 1875. His parents Lawrence and Mary (Cotter) Brown had immigrated from Ireland in 1869, and his oldest sister was born on the journey at sea. Soon after the family moved north. Tom Gregory’s 1912 History of Solano and Napa Counties California says that they initially farmed in Browns Valley, but the 1880 census shows the family living on Third Street, and Lawrence is listed as a laborer. Edward’s brother John would later establish a farm in Browns Valley, which perhaps explains the confusion.

It was there on Third Street between Soscol and the Silverado Trail that Edward Brown would establish his business in stone and concrete. This included rather pedestrian work, like laying cement sidewalks. But it also included artistic work that required exacting precision, such as memorial monuments. In fact, according to Gregory, “Some of his work in the line of architectural sculpture may be seen on the Spreckles Music Stand in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, and the Herman W. Hellman Building, Los Angeles” (p. 478).

But one need not leave Napa to see the best of his work. That is featured at Tulocay Cemetery in a monument he designed and built for Manuel A. Almada (1842-1905), which Gregory wrote “is universally accepted as one of the most beautiful specimens of monumental sculpture in the west” (p. 478) and was “the finest monument in the cemetery” (p. 794). Apparently, he entered the design in a competition and beat out 17 other entrants. Afterwards his newspaper advertisements would describe him as “BUILDER OF THE M.A. Almada Monument. One of the finest monuments of the same size and dimensions in the world.”

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Manuel A. Almada Monument at Tulocay Cemetery

There are undoubtedly many of Edward Brown’s vaults, monuments, and tablets in Tulocay Cemetery that demonstrate his craftmanship. But without a surviving ledger from his business to consult, most of them would be impossible to identify. One exception is the Grand Army of the Republic Monument, as the dedication of that monument merited a frontpage write-up in the Napa Daily Journal that names Brown as its builder.

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G.A.R. Monument at Tulocay Cemetery

As for the rest station on Third Street . . . as the inscription indicates, construction on it began in 1912—November of 1912, according to the only newspaper article from the time that I have discovered yet. It was planned to have a fountain and a stone bench. The cobblestone wall was to extend for 120 feet.

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Obviously, the construction would serve as an advertisement for Brown’s business, giving examples of what he could do right along the route most Napans took to reach Tulocay Cemetery. It would also serve as a rest stop for those making that journey on foot.

For more than 70 years now, it has been an easy-to-overlook relic that is slowly disintegrating. I don’t know how many times I drove past it without taking notice of it. It wasn’t until I scored a great parking spot on the street for the Town and Country Fair and walked right past it with my daughter that I finally took note of it.

With a succession of auto repair shops occupying the spot since 1945, it has hardly been the refreshing rest station that Edward Brown originally created. The fountain and the stone bench are gone, and parts of the wall are crumbling. It’s still there, though, after 107 years. But it might not be there much longer.

While many Napans have been concerned about the efforts of the Napa Valley Expo to evict the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society after 49 years of delighting the public at their current location, Phase 4B of the Napa Valley Expo Master Plan would also entail eliminating Third Street Auto and the remnants of Edward Brown’s public rest station. According to that plan, both would be replaced by parking—although the Register has been reporting that it is a new livestock area that will be replacing the Quonsets of the railroad society (which lies immediately behind the auto repair shop). But you can see the plans for yourself here.

Edward Brown never married and never had any children. But he left more permanent reminders of himself in Napa after his death in 1941. They are easy to miss, but they are also easy to notice and dismiss. I hope this history will help some people to appreciate them more.