Mud brick by mud brick, Justin Altamura and a team of workers are helping rebuild Napa’s historic Old Adobe building.
Altamura, the owner of the property at Soscol Avenue at Silverado Trail, has spent the past several months working at the site almost daily.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” Altamura said, but “I love history. I love old things.”
His goal is to restore and retrofit the building — Napa’s oldest, dating some 171 years- — and return it to commercial use.
Altamura is not looking to do a slapdash repair. This 30-year-old Napa native has become deeply connected to the project.
“I want it to be perfect and people to be proud of this place,” he said.
He said he’s researched the site’s history, met with period experts, purchased antique supplies, traveled to see other adobe structures and, along the way, become an expert on Napa’s oldest surviving building.
That includes becoming an expert on mud. Adobe mud.
During a visit to the site last week, Altamura introduced three workers who were repairing and replacing the old mud “mortar” between the adobe bricks from the early 19th century.
The three — Carlos Peña Sr., Carlos Peña Jr. and Maria Flores — are father, son, and mother. On Wednesday morning, the family was working on an outside section of the mud walls.
Peña Jr. chipped away to remove the ancient dirt mortar, while his parents mixed fresh mud mortar and placed it between the bricks by hand. Pieces of straw and even horse hair could be seen embedded in the original brown bricks. The new mud mortar was being made from original bricks no longer part of the structure.
Peña Sr. said he’s worked on masonry projects for more than 20 years. His wife, Flores, is also familiar with adobe. She said she made the adobe bricks for her own home in Jalisco, Mexico.
Flores said that she was happy to work on the project. When it was noted that her fingerprints would be essentially embedded in the building itself and become part of the history of the structure, she nodded her head proudly.
Over the decades, the Old Adobe was encased by layers of new paint, wooden additions and other non-historic add-ons. It was first a home and later a restaurant.
Altamura has had most of the additions removed. Instead of painting over beams, they have been stripped down to the original wood. Original wooden headers over doorways are now exposed, along with original wooden floors and window casings.
“We want people to see the old wood,” said Altamura. As he removed the layers, “it was like unwrapping a gift,” he said.
Along the way, he’s uncovered historical treasures like square nails, broken bottle parts, a marble Altamura thinks is Native American, animal bones, a rusty belt buckle and 1940s newspapers and burlap scraps used as insulation.
On one wall, portions of a small mural of a Native American or Hispanic woman called “Belleza Toluca” have been preserved.
Near her image, faint scratchings of old five-digit Napa phone numbers can be seen. “Hosp 4-7811” one reads. “Chack 47082,” reads another pencil marking.
Initials and other names are scratched into other walls and doors around the former restaurant.
A 1930s era fireplace is made from “castle bricks” original to Napa State Hospital, said Altamura.
A new coat of white wash made of lime and salt is beginning to be applied outside. Inside, a layer of adobe plaster made of mud, sand and some pine needles now covers the walls.
Altamura, a grandson of Napa businessman George Altamura, said he’ll probably spend as much as $200,000 on the project. A new kitchen will be installed. The work will continue for the next several months.
The next tenant, most likely a restaurant or café, will help him recoup his costs, he said.
Being located at a busy corner in east Napa, the work at the site has drawn visitors and the curious.
Altamura said he doesn’t mind. “I hear different stories” about the site’s history, he said, and he shares information in return.
The most important thing is that the building is used and respected, he said. It’s a legacy project for this Napan.
“I’m going to own this until the day I die,” Altamura vowed.
Napa County Landmarks Board member Juliana Inman said the preservationist group is excited to see what Altamura has accomplished.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she said. The restoration “gives it some cachet and some importance.”
For years, the Old Adobe was a staple on Napa County Landmarks’ list of Ten Threatened Treasures. The adobe was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 2015.
Under Altamura’s care, its condition has improved immeasurably, Inman said.
“Justin is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about adobe buildings,” she said.
“They’ve saved every bit of adobe and every broken brick and everything from the site for making the mud plaster that’s going back on the building,” said Inman, an architect by profession. The workers are using all appropriate materials and salvaged adobe blocks from on site.
“Nobody has cared about that building in this way for 100 or 150 years,” said Inman. When it was first built, it was a utilitarian home or structure. “But it’s been abused and converted to other uses and terrible additions made to it.”
A fire left scorch marks that are still seen in the attic. “It’s just remarkable that it’s still here after all of that,” she said.
Inman said that Altamura is taking the professional advice he has been given seriously.
“He’s listened very carefully. He’s so appreciative of the history of the building and the site. It’s like a gift to the community for him to be working on it,” she said.
Built in the 1840s, the city landmark, also known as the Cayetano Juarez Adobe, has seen its share of owners and tenants, from original owner Don Cayetano Juarez to the merchants who later operated bars or other watering holes inside its thick walls of mud and straw. For a time, it was owned by Tito Fuentes Jr., the son of former San Francisco Giants second baseman Tito Fuentes.
The most recent tenant was the Taste of the Himalayas restaurant.