In the early 1950s, the Napa Register ran a Sunday features story about a Alex Hischier, a Napa man, who had worked on weekends building a mid-century modern ranch home for his family in the heart of Napa.
The centerpiece photograph showed Hischier’s two children, Stephen and Shelley, reading a book in their new living room in front of an imposing brick fireplace.
The story also included a description of Stephen’s bedroom, with knotty pine paneling that matched a knotty pine desk with “pony shoe drawer pulls. Cowboys, Indians and fishing gear hang on the walls.”
Seventy years later, Stephen and his wife, Barbara, have retired to this same home — or rather to the same footprint of the house, after it was redesigned and recreated into a 21st century home.
The knotty pine may be gone, but one remaining link to the past is an oil painting that hangs near the entrance. Stephen Hischier’s mother had purchased the work from a young Napa artist named Thomas Bartlett, who would go on to become an internationally known interior designer who kept Napa as his home base.
Mrs. Hischier, Stephen’s mother, so admired the painting, which she saw at one of Napa’s first harvest festivals, that she had her furniture reupholstered to complement it, and the painting of the young woman in emerald kept a place of honor throughout the years, as the children grew and left home, and then returned on holidays.
After Stephen and Barbara Hischier, living in Berkeley, became the sole owners of the house, they kept it for weekend and vacation visits, until, looking ahead to retirement, they decided that Napa would be their permanent home.
The man they chose to recreate Stephen’s childhood home as a fresh, modern “home to age” in was, fittingly, Thomas Bartlett.
The first house
According to the Register, in 1947, the Hischiers had bought a lot on Napa Creek, and Mrs. Hischier was reading Good Housekeeping magazine when she found a plan for a home she liked. The paper quoted her husband as saying “the best way to build a big house is to first build a little house to keep the tools in.” On the property, he built a brick tool house.
Next, he went on to the big house, working evenings, weekends and holidays, while still holding down his full-time job as an engineer at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
The house boasted “a 16 by 30 feet living room, three bedrooms, all opening on to a long hallway and a separate guest ‘powder room’, dinette, and kitchen.” A breezeway with a ping pong table separated the house from a guest room and bath.
Meanwhile “Mrs. Hischier had turned painter and paper-hanger” and Shelley and Stephen helped clean the old bricks for fireplace.
In a year, the “family project” was finished. The article lavishly described Mrs. Hischier’s decorating from 6-year-old Shelley’s bedroom “with blue and white check wallpaper,” furniture “made by Daddy, and “beloved feminine frills” like a organdy skirt on the dressing table and matching ruffle on the mirror. The family bathroom had yellow tiles “just like sunshine,” according to Shelley; and the guest powder room was papered in “huge lavender and purple lilacs. Woodworkin the small room is an unashamed — and unexpectedly charming— bright lavender.”
The kitchen got special attention. Mrs. Hischier was praised for her ingenious plans for the sugar pine cabinets that included a ventilated vegetable drawer and a “service window from the white tiled kitchen counter to the dining room…all the drawers…all the cabinets… all the working space any woman could want.”
The total cost of the family project was $5,000.
The house in 2020
Bartlett embarked on a two-year project that would extend from the front curb to the creek-side backyard.
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He removed the old brick facade, re-using the bricks to create a walkway through easy-care landscaping with olive trees and a box hedge to a newly designed entry.
In the backyard, he added a raised patio and outdoor kitchen, planter beds and a studio where Stephen Hischier, a retired stockbroker, paints. A lush, vivid green lawn beyond a deck leads to the creek bank — and it’s a fake. “Stephen was skeptical about a fake lawn,” Bartlett recalled, “but now he is a fan. No watering, no mowing and just picking up leaves.”
“Thomas is usually right,” Hischier quipped.
But it’s inside where the changes are most dramatic. “Barbara wanted open space,” Bartlett said and so, working with an architectural engineer, he opened up the ceiling and removed walls so that now the kitchen, living room and dining room comprise one light-filled space.
In line with this, Bartlett and the Hischiers reconsidered how to use the space in the footprint. Bartlett said it was a question of looking at dual uses for what had been essentially four bedrooms.
At one end of the house, they made a master suite with a spacious new marble bath. The third bedroom is now a room for Barbara to use for her projects. At the other end, they removed the breezeway and converted it to an office opening to the former guest room, now a den library.
Now Bartlett said, “You can stand in at one end of the house and see all the way to the other end.”
Within the rooms are sofa beds that can be used when their children and grandchildren visit.
Keeping the house all one color, he added, is another way to add to the sense of space, giving Barbara the “light, airy and convenient” feeling she wanted.
Two major changes reflect the shifts from the 1950s to now. The gleaming white and marble kitchen, entirely open, is a showpiece of the house, as well as an efficient and room place to cook and entertain. One might say the kitchen is now everything anyone might want in a 21st century kitchen.
In addition, Bartlett said, one of the first few things he noticed on entering the house was that the back wall of the living room was dominated by the huge fireplace, and only small windows hinted at the view. Now, that wall is mostly floor-to-ceiling doors and the the new gas fireplace is a sleek rectangle on the interior wall.
The Hischiers are also ardent collectors — of everything from antique weapons to elegantly bound books.
“Stephen had a lot of fun at auctions,” Bartlett said. His solution to artfully displaying the treasures was to group them in different areas: one wall lined with books, another with guns and swords and the head of a water buffalo. “It took me a whole day to get them to hang right,” Bartlett said.
He also found places for Stephen Hischier’s own paintings, including a large collection of framed miniature still-life works. Bartlett collected these on one wall of the entrance, across from an armoire and a knight’s armor.
“I didn’t tell him I was going to do that,” Bartlett said. “I just put them all together and let him see what he thought.”
As with the rest of the house, the Hischiers say they are delighted that this will be their place to grow old together.
“Life is a parabola,” Hischier said. “I’m still growing up here.”
And also near the entrance hangs the portrait of the woman in green, painted by the young Napa artist. It is titled, “Long Time Passing.”