Partially concealed from view by two large late-1800s magnolia trees is Napa’s stately and elegant 1870s Williams Smith house.
This classic Second Empire style residence and National Register of Historic Places property was lovingly returned to its former glory by the caring hand and meticulous eye of the late Doris Dawson.
Today, this First street residence stands as grandly as it did when new. However, most passers-by are unaware of all that went into rehabilitating this 3,500-square-foot house.
Its renaissance began in 1977 when Doris Dawson ended her search for a Victorian at its curbside. “My heart skipped a beat when we drove up to the house. It was so beautiful,” she said during a 1995 Napa Valley Register interview.
Before buying the house for $115,000 in 1978, her husband Elbert, “Bert,” placed a condition upon purchasing it: that he would not be asked to work on the house. She agreed, being unaware of the magnitude of the rehabilitation.
Dawson admitted she was a “babe in the woods” and so “innocent,” she told the Register later. She was slow to start the daunting and immense project. First, she educated herself by reading everything she could and then began to network to find knowledgeable and dedicated preservation experts.
The work needing to be done included: returning the building to a single-family residence; upgrading the electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems; repairing and/or replacing the damaged and/or missing exterior and interior architectural features, and so much more.
The property was a treasure trove of its original architectural elements. The basement, for instance, held the main staircase’s mahogany newelpost while the yard contained a fence picket that were reproduced for the side and back fences.
The results of Dawson’s labor and endeavors include the fully restored exterior, painted with a period appropriate color palette and replica wrought iron front fence and gate that complement the original curbside hitching post and a restored, classically inspired Second Empire front porch portico. Another interesting exterior feature are the streetside palm trees. They were planted in 1895 as part of an effort Smith and 11 neighbors spearheaded to rename First Street Palm Drive.
Just inside, the Smith house front doors reveals even more of what Dawson accomplished with her three decades of toil. The first vision is the sweeping front staircase with its rebuilt and original newelpost, banister and balustrades. The grand parlor to the east of the entry hall has been returned to its original size and richly appointed with its original Carrera marble fireplace and cast iron grate, rounded bay window with an Art Nouveau inset and inlaid wood floor. The ceiling moldings, medallion, chandeliers and Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper were added by Dawson.
Across the hall is a sitting room with another marble fireplace. The dining room has the only original gas, now electric, lighting fixture in the house and a bay window with a Art Nouveau inset.
The adjoining kitchen, maintaining much of its original layout, offers custom built redwood cabinets and modern appliances mixed with historic appointments, such as a butler’s pantry and pass-through. The connecting sun room includes a bathroom.
From the kitchen, the back stairs lead to the 1880 second floor addition of a fourth bedroom and redwood tongue and groove paneled bathroom outfitted with a clawfoot tub.
The bedrooms from 1875 are accessed by two steps-up. The two smaller, west-facing bedrooms have vistas of the garden below. The master bedroom across the hall is spacious with a large walk-in closet. All of the bedrooms have wood floors, understated details, walls that taper with the contour of the mansard roofline and transom windows above their doors.
The transformation of the Williams Smith house required more than years of hard work, it required capital. By 1995, the Dawsons had spent about $300,000 on the rehabilitation. And, there was still more work to be done.
For example, a year earlier, Doris began to pursue her goal of protecting the house from future inappropriate alterations and preserve it for generations to come through historic preservation designations. So she hired a professional historic preservation consultant and historian — the writer of this article — to conduct the necessary research and prepare the National Register of Historic Places nomination.
The Williams Smith house was officially listed on the National Register on June 30, 1995. To afford even greater safeguards, the house was listed as a Napa City Landmark in December 1995.
The research revealed Williams Smith, a Massachusetts native, arrived in Napa around 1850 at the approximate age of 18, following a stint in the California gold fields. He first worked as a “tinner,” tinsmith, before partnering with C. Cheeseborough to own and operate one of Napa’s first hardware stores. Eventually, Smith played an important role in the creation and success of both the Napa Building and Loan Association as well as the Napa Gas Company.
Smith’s Napa residency was split into two periods, 1850-1867 and 1870 until his 1901 death. During the first period, he was married and widowed twice. First to Susan W. who died May 7, 1859, age 32, and about two months after giving birth to their son Arthur W. on March 18, 1859. He died on Sept. 9, 1866, shortly after Smith’s second wife, Frances A., died on July 19, 1866 at age 24. She left Smith and their approximately 2-year-old daughter Susan, “Susie.”
Smith and Susie left Napa for Massachusetts in 1867. While there, he married Harriet Jones in 1870. They all returned to Napa shortly thereafter. Then on Oct. 15, 1871 Alex W. was born to Harriet and Smith.
At about this time, Smith searched for a suitable lot for a family home. He purchased the First Street lot from the first owner of the property and its existing dwelling. That building was either moved or razed to make way for the Second Empire style residence, the Williams Smith house, constructed circa 1875.
At that time, Second Empire was considered a very modern style with its iconic mansard roof, dormer windows and classically inspired Italianate features. A rare local architectural style, the Williams Smith house has only a few contemporaries: the Goodman Mansion, McClelland-Priest, Palmer and Francis houses.
Shortly after its completion, the Smith family moved in. Then in 1880, Smith had the second floor addition built to provide space for his mother-in-law, Rebecca Jones, who lived there until her death in 1895.
Sadly, death also paid the Smith household a visit on June 12, 1887 to claim 15-year-old Alex. He died from diphtheria.
On a happier note, Susie Smith married Charles C. Hatchett on Sept. 4, 1890 at her father’s home.
The 73-year-old Smith passed away on Dec. 9, 1901 at his home from to heart problems. “His place is vacant and his voice to public affairs is missing...,” said the Napa Daily Journal.
Harriet lived in the house until her death in 1928. Susie sold it to the Marinos in 1929. Between Harriet and the Marinos, numerous alterations were made to the house, including: subdividing the east parlor, adding the first floor bathroom, converting the house into two apartments and removing the wrought iron fence to contribute to the war effort metal drives.
Following the purchase of the property, the Dawsons lived in the house and with all the rehabilitation upheaval from 1978 and until their respective deaths. With the passing of Doris Dawson last year, their grown children recently placed the house on the market for $1,375,000. For details contact the listing real estate agents, Bill and Bernie Wilson, at billandbernie.com or 486-8415.
While rehabilitating the Williams Smith house, Doris kept a journal. One of her first entries read, “I felt as if I had at last come home; because of the serenity I experienced upon entering it the first time.”
And a final entry said, “It was fulfilling to me to restore a thing or object. I accomplished my goal of preserving the house through my lifetime.”