Historic Home

The Judge Johnson Horrell house, located at 554 Randolph St., is one of the oldest homes in Napa, built in the 1850s. A Mills Act agreement between the owner, Karen Wesson, and the city gives her tax breaks in exchange for keeping the historic character of the house.

J.L. Sousa, Register

A downtown Napa house being restored to its appearance from the city’s earliest days will remain under historic protection under a deal between its owner and the city.

The agreement lowers property taxes for Karen Wesson, owner of the Judge Johnson Horrell house that has stood at 554 Randolph St. since the 1850s. In exchange, Wesson agreed to keep the Gothic Revival building, which is listed in Napa’s historic resource registry, in its historic state under a 10-year contract that will renew itself every decade unless the owner or Napa opts out.

Napa's share of annual property tax on the site could be reduced from the current $1,492 per year to about $448, city senior planner Michael Walker said in a memorandum to the City Council.

Tax-breaks-for-preservation trades like the one the council approved Tuesday with Wesson are authorized by the Mills Act, which California passed in 1972 to encourage more property owners to restore old landmarks rather than demolish them for new development.

City staff described the agreement, which will reduce Wesson’s annual property tax, as a reward for her work reviving the historic house after decades of neglect and damage inflicted by the 2014 earthquake.

The Randolph Street site consists of a two-story main house built within a few years of California’s promotion to statehood in 1850, and a smaller, shingled home known as the Luther T. Hayman Cottage, added around 1905. The original residence – the first to be built on its block – is one of the oldest surviving single-family houses in the city, Napa County Landmarks said in a September letter to Napa officials.

Born in 1796 in Pennsylvania, Horrell, a lawyer, had lived in Ohio and Indiana before taking his wife and daughter to California in 1849 and settling in Napa the following year, according to the Landmarks group. Soon after arriving in Napa, he began a three-year term as the city’s second-ever justice of the peace after the town’s first judge, S.H. Sellers, was stabbed to death by a man Sellers had ruled against in a lawsuit.

Horrell originally built his namesake home on Division Street and lived there until his death in 1867, Landmarks officials wrote. A later owner, Thomas W. Mather, moved the structure to Randolph Street in 1890, then traded homes in 1895 with Luther Hayman, a Civil War veteran and Napa Register business manager who added the one-bedroom companion cottage about a decade later.

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Over the next century, the Johnson property was resold seven times and divided into six rental units, then sold again after the 2014 quake.

Wesson, the current owner, has overseen its conversion back into a single-family home as well as the return of key design elements like the front portico, roof finials, original-style windows and shutters, and the redwood siding. The Hayman cottage also has received original-style shingling and wood-frame windows, along with a period-correct door, porch and gutters.

This story has been amended since first posting to clarify the financial impact on the city. 


City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.