Ten Threatened Treasures 2015: Napa downtown post office

Deep fissures were visible in the façade of the Napa post office on Second Street, a few hours after the earthquake of Aug. 24, 2014. Napa County Landmarks fears the Postal Service will not repair it. 

J.L. Sousa/Eagle file photo

Age, neglect and obsolescence are the usual nemeses of historic buildings. But a Napa landmark has landed on the unenviable top spot of a local endangered sites list – with all the suddenness of an earthquake.

Fissured, battered and fenced off since the magnitude-6.0 quake of Aug. 24, the downtown Napa post office leads off the annual Ten Threatened Treasures, the list of at-risk properties released last week by the Napa County Landmarks group.

The tan brick 1930s-era edifice on Second Street is one of two earthquake-damaged sites to make the 2015 slate, along with the Carmelite House of Prayer near Oakville, which the Landmarks group placed fourth.

The marks on the post office left behind by the West Napa Fault became some of the most memorable images of the earthquake’s power. Walls cracked, windows were blasted to shards, brick columns shifted and asbestos contaminated the interior.

But a lack of clarity from the Postal Service about the building’s future – and a fear the agency may choose demolition as the easy way out – is what makes the post office the site of greatest concern, Landmarks members said last week.

“The Postal Service has not yet been forthcoming on what they plan on doing with it,” said Juliana Inman, a board member, architect and Napa councilwoman. “We are watching (the situation) very carefully, and we’re very concerned. Historic post offices are at risk all over the country, and the post office is selling them as fast as they can.

“These were built with public resources,” she said. “They are public-serving buildings. And the safeguards to ensure they’re preserved are not always forthcoming.”

Thirteen miles Upvalley, the Carmelite monastery, partly based in the early-1920s Doak Mansion, also faces an uncertain future after sustained quake-related damage.

The force of the quake damaged all four corners of the mansion, dislodged 25 feet of the brick façade and toppled brick parapets at both ends of the building.

The Doak building has been cleaned and reopened, and services have continued in the separate, undamaged chapel. But the monastery’s prior, Father Gerald Werner, said in March the Order of Carmelites may require up to $2.5 million to fully repair the damage and catch up to years of deferred maintenance –as well as $1 million for seismic retrofits.

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The rest of Napa County Landmarks’ threatened-buildings list largely includes rural locations — the former Rutherford train depot and grange hall, and Pope Valley’s general store, livestock barns and the Henry Haus blacksmith shop.

According to members of the preservationist group, a common thread running through the Upvalley sites is their link to a world dominated by farming and ranching rather than winemaking – and their slide into neglect after their original economic purposes disappeared. For example, the 144-year-old Rutherford station house, vacant since 2001, ceased serving railroad passengers before World War II and lost its role as a grain shipment point after grapevines took over Upvalley agriculture.

“Sometimes, land uses changes so that, for example, livestock barns are not being used for livestock any longer,” said Inman. “And the Rutherford train station, historic uses can be resumed in the building, but is that what really suits today’s model? And it’s a constrained site because even if you do find a modern use for it, how do you accommodate parking or waste disposal?”

The inclusion of the Pope Valley livestock barns reflects the shaky future of barns across the rural U.S., according to Stacey de Shazo, Napa County Landmark’s director of historic preservation. As fewer Napans keep livestock and vineyard management contractors reduce even the need for landowners to use barns for storage, the incentive to maintain aging wooden structures vanishes unless owners are persuaded to put them to new uses, she said.

“Changes in agriculture and land use and development are creating a situation where we’re losing so many barns nationwide,” de Shazo said Wednesday. “… That’s unfortunate, because it’s a big part of Napa County history when we had cattle and sheep and orchards. It’s OK for things to change, but it’s also important to preserve the past while we’re going forward.”

“This can help people understand that we’re losing our farming heritage,” said de Shazo.

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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.

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