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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Napa History: A Threatened Mid-Century Modern Gem


After years of neglect and disparagement, Mid-Century Modern design has been become highly fashionable in recent years. While all sorts of newly created products inspired by Mid-Century Modern design are churned out to capitalize on this revived interest, the more important thing is that people are now actively working to preserve examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that the City of Napa would choose this time to plan on demolishing its lovely Mid-Century Modern city hall building. I could understand them wanting to get rid of it in, say, 1990. But now? Just when so many people have come around to appreciating the appeal of the design?

Napa’s City Hall is located on School Street, and someone asked me today if it was originally built as a school. No, the school that School Street was named after was far older than that, having been built in 1868-69. Later it became known as Central School. The old Victorian 2-story school building was demolished in 1923. After some discussion about building a civic auditorium, the city built a fire station on the property, and later added a flower garden.

California, and Napa with it, was rapidly growing in population throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The war effort took many resources, and temporarily stunted some of the civic growth that would have been expected to occur otherwise. But with the conclusion of World War II, California development took off.

Growing Napa was overdue for a larger City Hall at that time. The old city hall building on Brown Street had been condemned after the 1906 earthquake, but “No one, in later years, at least, has been able to trace the fate of the condemnation order. Suffice to say, it was never carried out” (25 July 1952 Napa Register p. 7). City officials temporarily relocated to the Goodman Library, but since that was not the use for the building specified in George Goodman’s gift to the city, they eventually moved backed into the old wreck of a building on Brown Street (the remains of that building weren’t torn down until after it was badly damaged again in the 2014 earthquake).


In June of 1951 construction began on a new city hall building on the site of city’s flower garden on School Street. The new City Hall was a key item in the city’s 5-year capital improvement plan. The design was provided by Architect Silvio “Slim” Barovetto (1908-1996) of Davis. The building was to be large enough to accommodate many different city functions, but also fully modern in appearance and design. The building was officially opened in July of 1952, complete with ceremonies and visiting officials. The new City Hall was all over the Napa Register, making the front page and 4 full pages inside.

Of course, Napa’s City Hall is modest in scale, as befitting a city that had a population of only 13,579 in 1950. Large developments in recent years along First Street have made that School Street property very valuable. The city leaders are being fiscally responsible in thinking they could sell that property for a premium and use the money to build a larger municipal building that could reunite functions that have been dispersed across multiple sites because of lack of space.

But the 1950s are never coming back again, and Napa has only a handful of examples of high-end Mid-Century Modern architecture. The people of Napa should know and appreciate just what it is they would be losing before they approve the demolition of this little gem of a building.

See the following for more about architect Silvio Barovetto:

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