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Hidden history in Napa
This building at Sixth Street and Soscol Avenue was once a depot for the old Napa electric railroad. J.L. Sousa/Register

 Amid the grit and grease that is Wine Country Motors on Sixth Street, mechanics tromp over ribbons of steel embedded in the concrete floor.

These rails might seem as out of place as a mounted moose head, but they tell a story. Wine Country Motors occupies a building that accommodated a century of the city’s transportation history.

Wine Country Motors and half a dozen other contemporary businesses are housed within the shell of the enormous car barn of the old Vallejo, Benicia & Napa Valley Railroad.

Built in 1905, the car barn and repair shop remained after the electric railroad went belly-up in 1935. Today people visit the ghost of the old railroad to rent a car, buy smoking supplies, or get their vehicle smogged.

A new city-sponsored study brings alive a century and a half of development along Soscol Avenue and the former Italian neighborhood of East Napa.

The report, known officially as the Soscol Gateway Historic Context Statement and Survey Report, will be used to guide development in the city’s newest redevelopment area.

Major commercial and residential growth is planned in coming decades.

The historic study will make sure that the new does not violate the buildings that survive from the past, Jennifer LaLiberté, a city redevelopment manager, said.

Known today as Napa’s Auto Row, Soscol was once the city’s industrial hub, lined with factories that provided hundreds of manufacturing jobs.

The first factories were built close to the Napa River, the city’s original transportation corridor.

When the railroad arrived in the 1860s, industrial development intensified.

Most of the early industries, including Napa Woolen Mills, Bachelder Manufacturing and McBain Tannery disappeared without a trace.

So did the city’s fanciest hotel, the three-story Palace at the southwest corner of Third Street and Soscol.

Erected in 1875, it vanished in the 1930s, replaced by Noyes Lumber, now also a memory.

While much has disappeared, the report makes clear that much remains, often hidden beneath the veneer of the present.

Kelly Picker, owner of Wine Country Motors, said he feels honored to repair cars in a building with dual sets of railroad tracks embedded in the floor.

When he installed a smog testing machine, he dug up a section of flooring, uncovering perfectly preserved railroad ties, Picker said.

“It’s a neat old building,” he said.

On the 800 block of Third, adjacent to the Napa Valley Classics motorcycle store, sits a two-story building that appears in every way undistinguished. The doorway at 814 Third contains a plaque that says, “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.”

 Perhaps so, but the building, which dates from the 1870s, has a significant history. It was built as the Brooklyn Hotel by Italian immigrant Dominic Cavagnaro, becoming a gathering spot for the Italian families that grew up around it, the survey report notes.

Dave Cavagnaro, called the “Mayor of East Napa,” ran the hotel and restaurant for years. The facade was modernized years ago, obliterating the original architecture, but the core of the building is a 19th century time capsule.

Napa Valley Classics displays motorcycles in an early 20th century building that looks old, but not ancient.

Classics owner Ron Kane likes to surprise customers with the news that his showroom was once a stables for the Palace Hotel.

“It was your parking lot,” serving horses instead of cars, which had only recently been invented, Kane said.

In a copy of an old photo, his building carries a “Palace Stable Annex” sign, while scruffy men looking like extras for the HBO series “Deadwood” loiter in front of the Brooklyn Hotel next door.

“It’s been an eye-opener to realize the past lives of some of these buildings,” Wendy Ward, a Napa Cultural Heritage commissioner, said.

Ward said she was blown away by a photo of the Borreo Building, at the northwest corner of Third and Soscol, as it looked in 1905.

Today the city-owned building sits empty and alone, awaiting reuse. Back then, it was part of a row of industrial buildings that marched all the way to the river’s edge.

“It’s hard to imagine how it was,” Ward said. Soscol would have looked and smelled so different than today. Once industrial, Napa is now a tourist town, she said.

The city’s survey covers more modern buildings such as the Chrysler dealership at 333 Soscol Ave.

Built in 1955, the building, with its butterfly wing roof, is a a good example of the Googie style, the report states.

LaLiberté said she had never been fond of the building’s architecture, nor had she ever heard of the Googie style until she read the report by consultants Page & Turnbull, Inc. “Now I have a new fondness for the Chrysler building,” she said.

The area’s oldest building, dating from the 1840s, is the Old Adobe at Soscol and Silverado Trail, which lives on as a restaurant. “Everybody has a warm spot for the Old Adobe, for sure,” LaLiberté said.

The report surveys the modest homes in the greater East Napa area, noting that those in and around Juarez Street were part of a 19th century enclave of Italian immigrants with such names as Carbone, Migliavacca and Rossi.

The city’s redevelopment agency will arrange a meeting with East Napa residents to share the results of the survey and suggest the creation of a conservation district, LaLiberté told the City Council last week.

A conservation district would be one way of ensuring that the street facades of buildings retain their historical integrity, LaLiberté said.

The city will also meet with commercial property owners to share survey results.

The public has until

Jan. 22 to comment on the draft report.

The full report is available at the city’s Web site, cityofnapa.org, by clicking on “Heritage Napa.”

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