If the walls of the former Carneros social hall could talk, they’d likely tell stories of many a party and dance, not to mention more than a few math and spelling lessons.
Located on a stub of the Old Sonoma Highway beside the entrance to the Carneros Inn, the nearly 100-year-old hall was a social hub for the farm and dairy families that populated the Carneros region south of Napa in the early 20th century.
In the late 1970s, the hall became home to a small private school. Since the late 1980s, it has sat empty and forlorn, its prospects for the future seemingly dimming with every passing year.
Today, the old hall is listed for sale for $190,000. The property is owned by the di Rosa organization, operator of the nearby di Rosa art museum, said listing agent Cathy D’Angelo Holmes.
The plain one-story building was built about 1913, according to the Napa County Historical Society. In a 2007 Register interview, Dorothea Miller of Napa recalled the club as a beehive of activity for everything from 4-H meetings, card parties, wedding receptions, Farm Bureau meetings and adult dances — often to the music of the Baley Orchestra. It was also the site of an annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef and cabbage.
“Anything you can think of went on in that social hall,” Miller recalled at the time. “It had a good dance floor … (and) there were a lot of wild drunken dances there … heck everybody knows that.”
Alcohol was not permitted, so during intermission everyone rushed out to their cars, she recalled.
From the late ’70s to the late ’80s, Janet Borba and Parker Hall ran a private school, Silver Pony, in the former hall.
“We had fond memories of it,” Borba said. The rent was inexpensive, probably no more than $400 a month at the time, she said. The couple had heard that the former owner, Rene di Rosa, liked the idea of a one-room school as a tenant.
“It’s funky inside,” Borba said, describing hardwood floors, knotty pine walls and plenty of windows. “It was just beautiful.”
While the old hall evokes memories of yesteryear, today some might call it a white elephant.
“This is not your typical sale,” D’Angelo Holmes said. The building is not functional. It lacks water or sewer service. It has been empty for decades.
As Rene di Rosa grew older, he was not able to provide direction on what to do with the building following his death, Kathryn Reasoner, executive director at the di Rosa museum, said.
The structure is in bad shape, she agreed. “It’s been let go for a long time.”
Reasoner said it wouldn’t be cost-effective for di Rosa to renovate the property. In addition, its size and location “doesn’t fit with our mission and our programs,” she said. “It’s not a good space for showing art. It’s not a good location for a classroom. There’s no parking.”
“We can’t care for it the way it needs to be cared for,” she said. “We’re hoping someone will come along and want to save it.”
“I don’t think we’d turn down a reasonable offer,” Reasoner said.
Francis Mahoney, a longtime Carneros grower, said he’d like to create some kind of agriculture-themed museum at the site.
“It’s a wonderful place to tell the story of Carneros,” he said. “I’m trying to work with groups here in Napa to see if there is an interest to put up a little money and preserve this.”
“I think it can be a wonderful resource for people visiting the valley,” he said.
Napa County Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said the property is zoned for agricultural use but could be utilized as a meeting hall or events space.
The county recently identified the structure as a historical building. If a new owner wanted to tear it down, the owner would first need to determine how much of the structure’s original historical integrity remained. “That will require some investigation,” Gitelman said.
If enough structural integrity remained, “we would ask the owner to rehabilitate and reuse it as a historical building.” If the new owner wanted to demolish it, they would have to go through a lengthy process to receive such approval, she said.
Could that be a hindrance to a new owner? “It depends on what the new owner wants to do. That would be something we would work with them on,” Gitelman said.
The property is near the main entrance to the upscale Carneros Inn.
“I love that we have that bit of history here,” said Keith Rogal, who developed the inn and lives in a home on site.
“I hope someone will find a way to bring new life to what was a very active part of the Carneros community,” said Rogal, who added he has no interest in buying the property.
Nick Monroe, chief financial officer and general manager of Carneros Holdings, which owns the Carneros Inn, said his group isn’t interested in buying it either.
However, “We would certainly like to see it preserved as a social hall,” Monroe said.
Carneros Holdings has already provided some maintenance in recent years, including roof repair and landscaping.
“We did that mostly because Rene was able to do less and less in his last years. With his permission, we maintained it so it wasn’t a fire hazard,” he said.
There’s a lot of sentiment from residents about the hall, Monroe said, adding “Any effort to reinvigorate the social use will have to involve members of the community. It has to be a widely embraced concept.”
Further deepening those community ties, a World War I memorial dedicated to “our heroes of Carneros” accompanies the building. The large stone marker lists the names of six men who died during the war. In 2007, Miller, then 84, said her uncle, Steve Nonella, was one of the names listed on the monument.
Miller recalled that the memorial used to be located at the old Carneros School across the street from the hall. After the school was demolished, it was moved near a tree next to the front door of the social hall.
D’Angelo Holmes said she will determine if the new owners want to maintain the memorial, “It won’t be abandoned.”
Mahoney said he estimates it would take $500,000 to turn the old building into a museum staffed by volunteers. “It needs some serious structural work,” he said. He’s hoping to raise the money privately from supporters throughout the valley. “It’s not just a Carneros thing,” he said.
“I’m looking for people who would love to preserve this old hall,” Mahoney said.
Susan Hirschy is familiar with what it takes to preserve such a property. Hirschy is the official “master” of the Rutherford Grange, an Upvalley building that dates from about the same time as the Carneros social hall.
Representatives from the California Grange association were unable to determine if the Carneros hall was ever an official grange, but grange or not, “It’s a lot to bite off,” Hirschy said.
When efforts to restore the Rutherford Grange began, the structure was facing imminent collapse, she said. Using private donations, the grange has put more than $120,000 into the property. “We’ve been redoing all of the systems within the building,” including a fire alarm and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. “It’s been very expensive.”
To save an old social hall “takes a real commitment within the community and from the people who have the funds to give,” Hirschy said.
“If the right idea comes along, you’ll have people flocking to it,” she said.