Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Napa: Young or Old?

As we walked around downtown Napa (CA) between the riverfront and Main Street and between First and Fifth Streets past several buildings dating back to the 1880-1920 period, it was hard to imagine Napa being a relatively "young" city. (The Italianate Victorian Winship-Smernes Building [1888], right, is at the center of the old business district and the Semorile Building (1888), below, is next door.)

Add to this impression, Napa's earlier history as the first recorded exploration of Napa Valley occurring in 1823, its growth during the gold rush of the 1850s, and the plantings of vineyards in the 1860s seemed to contradict any reference to Napa as young.

But then we read: "Since the 1950’s, the City of Napa has evolved from a rural small town known for prunes (and) Kaiser Steel.... While Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga saw continuous growth in tourism, the City of Napa struggled to find ways to draw visitors. The effort was not helped by periodic severe flooding.

"Restrictions on development in the flood plain chilled prospects for success...(and) there was little done to capitalize on the waterway as an attraction for visitors or a recreational amenity for (residents).

"With the passage a voter supported flood control plan in 1998 came the birth of a new potential for a central downtown district free of flooding... (and) a new mood of excitement in Napa" (Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District).

We began our walk around downtown Napa along the riverfront on a winding sidewalk that paralleled the Napa River. We imagined the view from one of the condominiums (above) along the walk and wondered how many times the residents take the short walk to recently-opened restaurants, such as Rotisserie & Wine, owned by Tyler Florence, and Morimoto-Napa (right), owned by Masaharu Morimoto, both of whom are stars of Food Network shows.

Another few dozen steps found us at the Historic Napa Mill, a brick warehouse built by Albert Hatt in 1884. What was once the location of a grain mill with 99-foot-tall silos and docks along the historic Napa River now is the home of the Riverbend Performance Plaza (right; in the foreground is the sculpture by Nicky Falkenhayn entitled "The Throne") and fine restaurants, such as Angèle (below).

The former A. Hatt warehouse (right) also is the home of Sweetie Pies Bakery and the Napa River Inn.

"Moving thousands of pounds of butter and chocolate through the kitchen doors weekly, owner/master baker Toni Chiapetta fashions custom creations," such as the Passion Fruit Cake (far left, top shelf), Tres Leche Cake (second from the left, top shelf), and the White Chocolate Cheesecake (far right, top shelf).

Sweetie Pies provides breakfast for the Napa River Inn and serves lunch daily and desserts and wine during evening hours.

Since the Napa River Inn was nearby, we decided to visit this addition to the historic warehouse. Looking at the well-appointed lobby, it was hard for us to imagine this same space being part of a warehouse that stored fertilizers, feed, supplies, and Napa Valley wines for local vineyards.

But the design and construction of the Inn has resulted in the 66-room Napa River Inn being designated as an official Historic Hotel of America.

Before completing our tour of historic downtown Napa, we stopped by the Napa Valley Opera House and met Julie Dalrymple for a tour of "The Jewel of the Napa Valley," as the Opera House was known in its heyday.

In the years following the California Gold Rush, local leaders of the city of Napa recognized something very important was missing: a theater. A first one was built in 1871, but it burned in a fire. In the years that followed, local politics thwarted efforts to build a new theater.

Finally, in 1879, a wealthy farmer named G.W. Crowey bankrolled the development of a grand place to watch live performances.

The building itself was somewhat of a rarity; instead of erecting the stage on ground level, it was built on the second and third floors, leaving the lower floor for retail shops and restaurants. Today, this first floor space is the Cafe Theater, seating about 180 for comedy acts, for example.

The Grand Opening of the Napa Opera House took place on February 13, 1880, with a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore.

It was good to see that the 1906 earthquake (minor damage), the advent of movies (the Opera House closed in 1914), and a desperate owner (1971 plan to demolish it) could not destroy the Opera House.

The survival of this historic structure (being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and benefiting from efforts of preserva-tionists [1980s] and philan-thropists [1997]) was apparent as we viewed the beautiful 460-seat theater, walked backstage, saw the stage equipment and props (left), and sat in the Green Room (right).

To complete the description with which we began this entry: "Since the 1950’s, the City of Napa has evolved from a rural small town known for prunes (and) Kaiser Steel...to an increasingly urbane community."

A "young" city with a long history.

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