After 11 months of keeping faith in his vision, in spite of the naysayers, Joe Brasil has turned a derelict property into a showplace that sold the first day it hit the market.
When Brasil purchased the dilapidated two-story house with a barn behind it at 523 Brown St., some people thought he had lost his senses. Others suggested he bring in the wrecker’s ball.
They saw two dingy old buildings that had been unoccupied for 30 years. Brasil was able to look beyond the boarded-up doors, broken windows and other signs of neglect.
Brasil, a local Realtor who owns a home a few blocks away where he lives with his family, could see what the property was capable of becoming and the improvement this would make to his neighborhood. He envisioned a charming home with vintage integrity and modern amenities.
“This property had history that should be respected and remembered,” Brasil said. “That is what motivated me.
“I love learning about the original settlers to Napa, the home builders and families who lived in our old town neighborhoods,” he continued. “I went down to the historical library when I purchased this home.”
Brasil was fascinated by what he discovered. He learned that his new property, built in 1868, was the first home to be built on the block, then called Grant Avenue, but later renamed after Henry Brown, a builder in Napa during the Victorian era.
Digging through old records, he also found out that the architecture for the home is called “I-House,” after “folk houses” that were common in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, “states beginning with the capital letter I.”
The property had also been home to the National Rug Co., which was operated out of the barn behind the house from 1940 to the 1970s.
Transforming the 145-year-old dwelling into a hot property meant renovating it “top to bottom,” he said.
Both the house and barn needed new foundations that required engineering and city approval. Acting as his own general contractor, Brasil worked with the Napa planning and building departments and brought in experts.
Two key members on his team were Larry Flynn, a finish carpenter who specializes in restorations of vintage properties, and his foundation and framing expert, Brian Jones.
“I started from the foundation and worked my way up,” he said. “Everything has been restored.”
The old knob and tube wiring was dismantled and replaced with all new electrical wiring and all new plumbing. New insulation and a new roof were required. Parts of the structures were reframed.
It was important to Brasil to keep the property authentic to the historical period. He was able to save the old shiplap siding, beadboard ceilings, original fir floors, original doors, the claw-foot tub and a corner sink.
Some of the original corrugated metal siding was saved on the now-red barn.
“I had striking barn doors built and installed, and it turned out beautiful,” he said.
It is a “level three” historical property, Brasil said. To remain on the historic registry, the façade must remain intact and in keeping with the way it was originally built.
“Vintage meets modern” touches are abundant throughout the house and barn.
The kitchen was opened up and completely remodeled with high-end European appliances, Carrera marble countertops, recessed lighting, Martha Stewart Cabinetry with cupped and glass hardware, farm apron sink and the original refinished fir floors.
The renovated dining room features the original refinished barn-wood floors and beadboard ceiling.
The living room features modern lighting scones and refinished original fir floors, and all of the windows in the home were replaced with Milgard double-hung, ironclad windows.
Looking back at the project that took him nearly a year, Brasil said it was “75 percent fun.” He enjoyed planning, designing and “watching it come together.”
He loved meeting with Billie Barlow, 85, the daughter of Agnes Morgan, who had lived in the home until she died in 1968.
When Barlow came to visit, she told him stories of what life was like in the 1940s.
“She would fish in the Napa River with her dad, and he would clean the fish they caught in the concrete basin sink that I saved,” Brasil said. “She got to see her old room, the front bedroom given to her because she was the neatest.”
Barlow graduated from Napa High School in 1946 and moved away when she married in 1948.
“The not-so-fun part was running into the unknowns as the restoration progressed, stretching the budget without compromising the integrity of the restoration,” he said.
There were other frustrations. At one point, Brasil thought he would have to tear down the barn because it was going to be too cost-prohibitive to restore.
“In the end, we were able to save it, and I’m so glad we did,” he said.
During the barn phase of the project, an owl adopted the project and didn’t seem to mind the construction noise during the day. “We left the barn doors open for it to come and leave every day and evening,” Brasil said. “It became our little friend.”
His advice for someone considering renovating an older building is to “expect the unexpected and plan on going over budget.”
The buyer of Brasil’s property “put his mark” upon the completion of the project. He plays Petanque (a French game similar to bocce ball) and suggested that the space behind the barn be devoted to the sport. “Decomposed granite was installed, and it is very appealing under the canopy of the old oak tree back there,” Brasil said. “It was a great use of space.”
“My theme for this project was ‘rebirth in progress,’” he said. “Now that it is complete, a new era for the Napa ‘I-House’ has been born.”
Brasil saved an old house, aesthetically improved the neighborhood, employed people for a year and he “made a little money.”
Would he do it again? “Yes. I walk by the home and think to myself, ‘I did it.’ I had a hand in bringing this sad old home back to life. It is now going to be occupied again by a nice new family,” he said. “It makes me happy.”