It’s not every day you find a Napa Valley vintner serving visitors a nice pot of tea, but that’s what Lauren Ackerman was doing on last Sunday afternoon in Napa.
It was all in the spirit of the holidays and of the Ackerman Heritage House, the Queen Anne Victorian in Napa that she purchased in 2010.
Restored to its lavish Victorian splendor, the historic home gets an extra dazzle at the holidays, bedecked with swags of greenery on the stairs, angels on the mantel, and ribbons, and ornaments everywhere. It needed only Charles Dickens, sitting on a velvet settee and spinning out a tale or two.
The holiday tea parties are only some of the events being held at the historic Napa house since Ackerman reopened it. Private dinners, tours, receptions, and weddings are on the books, and, yes, even wine tastings.
It’s part of Ackerman’s plan to make her meticulously restored masterpiece self-supporting. “When I am gone — and I hope this is a long time away — I plan to donate it to the city, as a living museum,” she told the tea party guests as she led a tour, upstairs and down, and described the adventures she encountered after she fell under the spell of a 110-year-old Victorian that had come onto the Napa market.
“I purchased it very naively,” she said, but only after nine months of negotiations and repeated assessments for the home that had “about 50 years of deferred maintenance.”
She subsequently plunged into a five-year course on restoration, during which she learned about stained glass windows (the house has 17), redwood floors (the desirable “Napa” imprint on redwood in the 1880s meant it had been milled in Napa and was of superior quality) and life in Victorian Napa. She also took a summer course on period architecture at Oxford.
“It was my first restoration,” said Ackerman, who spent more than $2 million renovating and refurnishing the house. Along the way, she researched its history. The house, long known in Napa as the Gifford House, was actually built by an heiress named Sarah Hayman, Ackerman said.
Designed by local architect Luther Turton, it was built between 1884 and 1888 for Hayman and her husband, Luther Turnbull Hayman, a real estate tycoon and partner of George M. Francis, a former owner of the Napa Valley Register. The Haymans lived there for only two years before moving to another home in Napa. The Gifford family bought the house in 1904 and lived in it for next 45 years.
Ackerman solved the question of who it should be named for by rechristening it the Ackerman Heritage House.
“Eighty percent of the furnishings, I found on eBay,” Ackerman said. Others came from the home of her mother, an antique enthusiast, or from local finds like the glittering chandelier in a luxurious upstairs bathroom in the house’s round tower. It’s off the bedroom Ackerman calls “Sarah’s room,” which is furnished with a grand canopy bed, a find eBay.
She broke with Victorian tradition by installing two other bathrooms upstairs (there would have been only one, possibly without a chandelier over the tub). One is what had been the maids’ bedrooms, the other, a half-bath is in a nook that was once a sewing room at the head of the servants’ staircase.
On the other hand, she created a tribute to the Victorian spirit with a study in a former upstairs bedroom that reflects the “interests of a Victorian gentleman” artifacts from New Guinea, a stuffed peacock, a state-of-the-Victorian art victrola, and a magnificent English desk at which this Victorian gentleman could contemplate the progress of science. Here, also she has two framed prints she found on eBay, purchased as a set, an Americana poster, and a family tree. It was only after the prints arrived that she discovered the name on the family tree: Ackerman.
“There have been other interesting coincidences,” she said.
Ackerman was “45 days away” from completing the restoration when the 2014 Napa earthquake hit, and set the schedule back as they repaired fallen plaster. Ackerman remained committed, however, noting only that it was good they had already restored and reinforced the irreplaceable stained-glass windows. “They wouldn’t have survived,” she said.
Descendants of the families who lived in the house have come to see her work, including Lulu Hayman, Sarah’s daughter.
And although no one lives in the house, during the recent wildfires, Ackerman, evacuated from her Coombsville home, stayed in the Victorian when she said she got a distinct sense that she might be sharing the space with ghostly residents. “There have been deaths, births and weddings here,” she said. “There has been a lot of life.”
And where does wine come in?
First, as part of Napa’s history. “Napa’s first winery was not far away,” Ackerman said. “John Patchett built it in the town of Napa.” Working for Patchett was Charles Krug, who went on to build Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, now the valley’s oldest winery.
Wine is also part of her present-day plan to maintain and preserve her work. Realizing that maintaining an historic house is a never-ending project — “It’s like owning an old ship,” she said — Ackerman got permission from the city to create a tasting room for her wines in the adjacent carriage house. Now called the Aviary, the space can host up to 12 people for tastings of the wines from Ackerman Family Vineyards in the Coombsville appellation.
On Sunday, however, it was all about tea. Two more holiday teas are planned for Dec. 17, at noon and 2:30 p.m. and monthly tea parties will continue in 2018.
“I want this house to go on in perpetuity,” Ackerman said, “so that our children and grandchildren can come here and step back in time.”