Restoring the architectural and historical dignity of the Judge Johnson Horrell property required nearly five years of the hands-on devotion of its owner Karen Wesson.
Dedicating every waking minute to her downtown Napa property, Wesson made numerous surprising discoveries. While those artifacts initiated her campaign to reveal the property’s true historical and architectural heritage, Wesson also found her own truth - a passion for historic preservation.
Recently, Wesson received word all of her hard work garnered her a coveted California Preservation Foundation (CPF) award in the category of restoration. But the path to this accolade had been long and demanding for Wesson and her general contractor Mike Chamberlain.
“I could not have done it without Mike," she said. "He was on for the project from the very beginning. He said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ We were on the same wavelength. And, he just got it when I talked about an idea for the project. It was amazing working with Mike.”
Wesson’s project began because she was looking for another investment property with potential. The Horrell property met that criterion. The house, “red-tagged” because of damage after the 2014 South Napa earthquake, has been returned to its former glory. The 1856 Gothic Revival-style building is once again a single-family residence. Its 3,286 square feet have been fully updated and features four bedrooms, three-and-one-half bathrooms and a fully appointed kitchen. But it retains a large percentage of its original details, materials and design aesthetics as seen in the front parlor, dining room and study. The same can be said for the two other historic buildings on the Horrell property -- the 1907 Craftsman- style Hayman Cottage and 1870s carriage house.
However, in early 2015 there was a lot of work waiting to begin. In preparation for that major undertaking to commence, for weeks, Wesson cleared out loads of stuff left behind. One baffling item was an large auto part. Wesson still asks, “How did an entire axle get under my house?” While that question may remain a mystery, many other questions about the property and its occupants have been solved by Wesson digging into Napa’s past.
For example, when the Horrell House was lifted in preparation for its new foundation, the building was also moved a few feet away from the property line. During that process, a remnant of an old foundation was revealed. These remains of the original front porch footprint confirmed Wesson’s theory about the porch design, a typical Gothic Revival style. With this discovery, Wesson proceeded with her plans to replace the wide porch.
Also, while working on the front facade, Wesson noticed the architectural details beneath the eaves had been cut off. At first, she had no idea as to their original design until she discovered some digital photos of the Horrell House. “I now had a true example to use to create a full-scale template to use for milling replacement details,” she said.
While extra effort was placed on restoring historically accurate elements, Wesson and Chamberlain removed the poorly constructed additions to the back of the house. Once demolished, an architecturally compatible kitchen-family room addition was constructed. However, not all of the former add-ons’ materials went into the dumpster. The former kitchen’s bead-board was incorporated into the new front porch. Throughout all three of the Horrell property’s buildings, materials were re-purposed and re-used in the rehabilitation of the buildings.
For instance, some of the old wood floor planks were transformed into the Study’s wall paneling. “To re-purpose and re-use those old materials was very time consuming and expensive. But it was worth it," Wesson.
This sentiment and practice was applied to the restoration of the original windows.
As the project continued, the former apartment subdivisions were removed and the Horrell House revealed more of itself and its past to Wesson.
“It was a wonderful moment when the third floor apartment’s stairs were removed allowing the second floor’s French-doors to be opened once again,” she said. “It was like the house could breath again.”
Another significant moment was when the house’s architectural showpiece - its curving staircase - was revealed to once again be a focal point.
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Behind wall and moldings, underneath floor boards and stairs, Wesson found artifacts and notations regarding the house’s history and inhabitants. One of the most thrilling discoveries for Wesson was finding Horrell’s business card tucked away confirming his residency. However, she returned it to its hiding place. As she peeled away the layers of the property’s history, she uncovered remnants of unique spider-web design wallpaper on a ceiling. Regarding these artifacts, “They belong to the house, not me. I will be creating a special time capsule with all of these discoveries and leave them for the future to find,” she said.
Wesson has also left behind her own notes in secret places for someone to discover.
Using maps, photos, on-line searches and talking with neighbors, Wesson substantiated a significant fact. She said, “The more I researched and the further I went back into history, it became clearly apparent the notations about my property included in the National Register of Historic Places District forms were wrong!”
Combining the facts of the residence’s architectural style era, finding Horrell’s business card, photographic evidence and deeds, Wesson determined the house was built in 1856. She has concluded it is the oldest, large, wood-frame residence in Napa. Wesson also discovered it had originally occupied a different parcel just a few doors away but was moved to its current site around 1890.
As part of this revelation of history, Wesson was thrilled to learn of and see a portrait of Horrell. It hangs in courtroom “B” of the present-day Napa County Court-house. Horrell was an early local judge and the 11th local lawyer to sign the Napa County Attorneys Roll - another surprise of Wesson.
As a result of her research, Wesson said she believes a portion of the carriage house was built for Horrell. She said, “The original part of the carriage house was constructed with cut nails. This method of manufacturing nails was used only between 1830 and the 1880s.”
The carriage house also received the attention it needed from Wesson and Chamberlain.
Besides the Horrell and carriage houses, a second dwelling is located on the property, the 1907 Craftsman style Hayman Cottage. In addition to being moved away for the property line and receiving a new foundation, its exterior walls were reclad with style appropriate wood shingles. The cottage also boasts two unique leaded glass windows created by Napa Valley artist Ken Boyd. The front door contains a monogram of an “H.” Wesson said, “I wanted to honor the Hayman era of this property.”
The bathroom leaded glass window features one of the most unique finds discovered on the property, an early 1800s coin.
“When we found it, I knew exactly how-to re-use it," Wesson said. "I had Ken place it in the center of the bathroom window.” As part of the rehabilitation of the cottage. its original coffered ceiling was restored to reveal its finely finished wood details and hue.
The Horrell property was not Wesson’s first historic preservation project. Her portfolio includes a 1912 Craftsman cottage in Oakland, California and her current 1940s Napa area home. “But they were nothing like this one!,” Wesson said.
Since the project’s beginnings, Wesson has spent countless hours rehabilitating the Horrell property. She said, “It started out as an investment, but its personal now. I’m so grateful for all the discoveries, the people I’ve met, their supportive and positive comments. I’ve also discovered I have a passion for preservation.”
“The work has been demanding, the hours long and even when I would go home at the end of the day, I continued to work making design decisions, following up on work orders and, of course, paying bills.” Wesson added. “It all began in March 2015, it is time to be finished!”