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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.

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: