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

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


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.



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.”

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.

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.


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.

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.

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: