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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Napa History: Napa Savings and Loan Association Building


In my opinion, the finest expression of Mid-Century Modern architecture in downtown Napa stands at 1301 2nd Street, the northwest corner of Second and Randolph streets. Presently, it is the home of Quintessential Wines LLC. Although it is only 74 years old, much younger than many of the noteworthy buildings in the historic core of the City of Napa, the building was recommended for official designation as a local landmark property by Page & Turnbull in a survey conducted for the Napa Redevelopment Agency in 2011.

Ironically, the construction of this landmark building was only made possible by the destruction of another, older, landmark.  This Modernist building was originally constructed to house a savings and loan that was looking for new home. In 1954, the Napa Savings and Loan Association, located on Brown Street, bought the old Cotterill/Boke house at the northwest corner of Randolph and Second streets, which dated back to the late 1860s and had only been owned by two families. The old house was recognized as a landmark in a top-of-the-title headline in the Napa Register reporting on the Napa Board of Condemnation’s recommendation to the city council to condemn the house: “Board Acts to Condemn Boke Landmark” was the headline on 10 November 1953. The eventual condemnation order gave Henry J. Boke the option of razing the structure himself, repairing it, or selling the property. Selling the property was the easiest option, and that’s where the Napa Savings and Loan Association stepped in.

In 1955 construction on the historic home site began on a building designed by the Cunneen Company of Philadelphia, a national company that specialized in bank design with divisions in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The design was typical of the trend in bank buildings in the mid-to-late-1950s: “The vernacular Modern bank had become a compact, asymmetrical composition of masonry volumes and glass curtain walls, locked together by a flat planar roof edged with aluminum” (Carol J. Dyson and Anthony Rubano, “Banking on the Future: Modernism in the Local Bank” in the journal Preserving the Recent Past 2, 2000). While not 100% finished, the building was opened to the public for a “special preview showing” on July 6 and 7, 1956. An article on the front page of the Napa Register the day before the preview describes many of the exciting modern features of the $130,000 building: porcelain enamel panels, Basalite brick, Solex glass, and “concrete stairways with invisible steel supports.”

Recent history has not been kind to Mid-Century Modern buildings, but remarkably the old Napa Savings and Loan Building looks, from the outside, very much as its designers intended. You can see a comparison by looking at this old photo from the Napa County Historical Society. In 2019, there are even plants in the planters!!! (I’ve seen so many Mid-Century Modern buildings with their planters filled with cement, or dirt, rocks, and garbage.) The only important element missing is the signage, particularly the three-dimensional projecting letters on that otherwise large blank space (the porcelain enamel panels?) on the 2nd Street side.

So if you happen to be passing by, make sure get a good look at this building and appreciate the artistry that went into its design (especially those floating concrete stairs!). Imagine the people in 1956 attending the open house, lining up to see this modern beauty. It is a particularly fine example of the architecture of the era in which it was built, and worthy of being considered a landmark.

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