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Is It Time Napa’s Ugliest Building?

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB


When an ‘Under-the-Influence “driver, apparently traveling the wrong-way on First Street, recently crashed into the Napa County Assessor’s Building at 1127 First Street, most of us had a good chuckle. The building known locally as the Carithers Building has been called Napa’s ugliest building for its Mid-Century boxy design. But the event highlighted a major issue, swept under the carpet far too long. While the driver was detained, it reminded us that the the Napa County Assessor’s Office Building is ready for the chopping block.


At the same time, the County is faced with replacing its ancient HVAC systems with a price tag of up to $6 million. Installing new units for the three floor offices for 160 County employees one thing, replacing the roof to accommodate heavier equipment is another.


The building itself is old and won’t meet today’s building standards. As noted by County Public Works Director Steven Lederer, the appraised value of the building a few years ago was $8 million and with the stagnation of the office real estate market, it’s doubtful its value has appreciated. With today’s high office vacancy rate, it might even be lower.


The 2014 earthquake significantly damaged the habitability of the 51,000 square foot building and reconstruction had to proceed with no existing plans, a mystery at the time. According to the emergency architects TLCD, no significant studies were made of the existing structure for continuing use. While FEMA paid for much of the improvements to reappoint the building, eight years later, the building is surviving on band-aids and prayers.


The building’s structural integrity needs to be investigated. According to Lederer only a roofing consultant looked at the building and found no issues with the building, other than the roof itself. I would expect a qualified structural engineering review would be warranted. So far, the County has been silent on that matter.


Should this car crash be the last straw?


The original Carithers was a beautiful stone-faced building and was one of the most important North Bay department stores with customers from around the Bay Area. A little history here: Napa’s renowned artist Gordon Huether’s German immigrant father Hubert got his first job designing their window displays in 1963. Perhaps Gordon got his first taste of design from his dad’s experience there.


John Tuteur, Napa County Registrar of Voters and Appraiser, remembers when the County purchased the present Administrative and Jail site on Third Street in the 60’s in order to keep businesses in the downtown community, which was fledging at the time. There was consideration of moving the County admin north nearer to the Queen of the Valley, but the downtown prevailed to keep everything downtown. The world has changed in 60 years and mammoth centralized offices, either by the County or Apple, are no longer relevant. Satellite offices are more efficient, public accessible and friendly.


The half-acre site would make an excellent mixed-use project of colorful ground floor retail shops and up to four stories of market-rate and affordable apartments. Few know that the North/South pedestrian walk from Murray Plaza on First Street to the Third Street garage entrance was called “Tire Park” with the recycled tires for child play and family gatherings. This linear park could be reinvigorated as a major community plaza for art shows and farmers markets to celebrate Napa’s unique bounty.


The existing County agencies currently surviving in the Assessors Building could be moved to the South Napa campus. There’s an abundance of space there and the fact that it’s not in downtown does not lose its relevance, community significance or flexibility for access by workers or their clients. The Board of Supervisors should also be considering moving more of their facilities to the south campus, but that’s another story.


Not everybody believes the facilities should leave the downtown area. John Tuteur is a strong believer in keeping employees in the downtown especially, with public serving offices like the present facilities. Nonetheless, shuffling the various County uses and taking into account the vacating downtown jail, there should be adequate office space for the County Administration in central Napa.


The County Board of Supervisors, with new Board members, should have this on their January “to-do list” agenda. The $6 million HVAC and roof repair is only a symptom of the problem. At the very least, investigate the existing structure for safety, longevity and durability. The County employees at least deserve that.


Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB loves the front wall mural and would reimage it on a new Carithers Complex.

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