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Saving Our Inheritance: What We Learn From The Past



Last week I played hooky. I traveled to Hollywood to tour the Hollyhock House on Olive Hill. I grew up a few blocks away and often hiked around the fenced-off ruins of the once stately Barnsdale artist colony, sadly watching it deteriorate from lack of care, water damage, earthquakes and vandalism. The quirky designed Frank Lloyd Wright 1919 compound with a central studio/gallery/residence and two guest homes was built for Aline Barnsdale, a wealthy oil heir. Not appreciated at the time or for the next 60 years, the Hollyhock House complex was in such awful disrepair and ruin that the City of LA was considering demolition in the 80s. Fortunately, the city has restored the main building to the glory it truly deserves and is working on the reconstruction of the two guest cottages.


It's a reminder we need to be observant of our past and not turn a blind-eye on any structure just because it doesn’t fit our image of historic. It doesn’t have to be Victorian or Craftsman to be notable.


The style was Wrights interpretation of the Southern California Art Deco/Craftsman style that was burgeoning locally. He openly borrowed design motifs from the ancient Mayan temples of Central America, although he always denied it. Wright was always identified as the Prince of the Prairie School of architecture with long, horizontal lines and big overhangs.


Wright was the master of details and loved new concepts, which resonate even today. Open floor plans, folding and sliding glass doors, multiple skylights, indirect lighting, clerestory windows, concrete block and intimate links between indoor and outdoor living, all to became characteristic of our California architecture and lifestyle.


FLLWs career was over 70 years and while a brilliant designer, my take-away was his constant reinvention of himself. From Prairie School Ranch to Southern California open terraces, to Art Deco interpretations, to timeless contemporary monuments such as The Falling Water residence in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He was the Greatest American architect and arguably the greatest 20 th Century international architect.


Architecture is not that much different from any other art where people like Picasso and Lady Gaga are constantly pivoting, not just adapting new designs but embracing all new interpretations of their profession. The other lesson is the importance of preserving our heritage. Fortunately, we as a City, State, Nation and culture, have a much greater respect for past buildings, but vigilance is always required.


The New Historic Style: Mid-Century Architecture


Currently, we are going through a reappreciation of Mid-Century architecture. Only a few years ago we would’ve thought nothing of tearing down what used to be Worlds Savings Bank on second and Coombs or Rico’s Auto Detailing at Third and Fourth. Unfortunately, we’ve lost great buildings such as the Chrysler-Jeep dealership on Soscol and the Carithers building on First St. Structures and places we take for granted, deserve preservation and restoration.


Napa County and the four cities have developed their own Historic Resources Inventories (HRIs) to identify structures or sites that contribute to the history and character of the community. These lists are important to evaluate our historic character and can be helpful in renovating or repairing a property. Some Mid-Century buildings should be considered.


Napa City developed its Historic Resources Inventory list for properties from 1978 and 1989 and features notable properties from all over town. This list has not been updated since 1998, although there was a brief review in 2004. The Napa County Historical Society and all Napa County planning departments should be re-evaluating their lists to ensure qualifying residence, structures, and neighborhoods are evaluated for historic designation. This is not to scare property owners that they won’t be able to repair or expand their structures but to aid them and the community in making sound design decisions.


As always, what’s old is new and the spotlight on how to properly develop a property is more than looking at its structural integrity or sustainability but should include recognition of its historic significance, even if only 50 years old, the current age designation of building to be considered historic.


Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB notes if you’re living in a house built before 1973, it might be historic.

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