Still Standing in Beauty
New ideas often need old buildings.
– Jane Jacobs
This can’t be the place, I said to myself, as I walked into a sunlit clearing on the Valley floor dotted with old trees towering above eight hopelessly shabby-looking structures. I had driven up Highway 29 from Napa that fresh summer morning, turning west towards the Mayacamas Mountains where I envisioned a hillside retreat with lush vineyards lining gently curving slopes. Remembering the excitement in my client’s voices on the phone a few days earlier, I couldn’t wait to see the property their son Mike had found in Napa Valley.
But I could barely contain my disappointment as I turned into the flat dusty parking lot miles before the Mayacamas slopes began where Marilyn and Bob stood waving. Mike joined them as I stepped from my car to shake hands while he graciously offered a personal tour of the “hidden gem of a property” he had found for sale.
Eight Deserted Buildings
Eight tiny deserted buildings backed up to the large undeveloped area where we stood. A row of four chewed-up houses on both sides of the clearing faced outward to an unpaved, weed-infested, rock-filled lane encircling the property. I couldn’t help but think the forlorn houses had turned their backs to us, ashamed of how badly they looked, as Mike enthusiastically pointed to each “cottage” while describing his vision.
I thought I was prepared for the insides of the cottages after seeing the outsides but the three- inch-tall gnarly orange shag wall to wall carpet encrusted with nicotine residue from years of cigarette smoke surprised me. My shoes literally stuck to the floor when I entered Cottage Number 1. The space inside each cottage was identical – divided into a tiny living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. The kitchens were nonfunctional, and the bathrooms were torn apart with large holes in the floors where plumbing fixtures had been pulled out.
I learned the cottages were built in the 1940’s for veterans returning from World War II. They provided shelter not only for our soldiers but for generations of Napa residents and visitors to the Valley. The property had been used in a variety of ways and owned and occupied by many people who had benefited from its presence for seven decades. Mike Smith found the property for sale in the summer of 2003.
Today the Cottages of Napa Valley is one of the leading bed and breakfast inns located in Northern California. I was privileged to work with the Smith family to renovate and remodel all eight Cottages plus a garage turned office and a shed converted to covered outdoor space.
Mike Smith, a contractor by trade, replaced and repaired the battered wood siding, topping each Cottage with a gray metal roof that lent a sophisticated farmhouse edge. In contrast, roof peaks were embellished with lighted cupolas complete with weather vanes which evoked an old-fashioned country feeling. We turned the back doors into front doors, so the Cottages now face the beautifully landscaped courtyard complete with private patios and tiny free-standing fireplaces.
The interior walls were removed, and the ceilings pitched and covered with bead board, creating large open spaces containing a sleeping area, sitting area, kitchen, fireplace and luxurious bathroom. Windows were replaced, and French doors added to bring more light into the spaces. A large skylight fills each bathroom with Napa Valley sun. The Cottages opened in the fall of 2005.
Recycling Old Buildings
I tell you this story to demonstrate that these “diamonds in the rough” were transformed through color, light, creativity and the heart and soul of the Smiths who refused to tear them down.
I’m happy to report that only 1% of the Valley floor was affected by the recent firestorms. And the Cottages not only remain as we transformed them twelve years ago, but their whimsical style continues to draw visitors from throughout the United States who return year after year to enjoy their enduring charm and the beauty of Napa Valley.
Alice Gund said “Recycling old buildings to show art is really important. I couldn’t agree more. But come see for yourself! napacottages.com.
Do you have an old house that needs transformation? I do. But then that’s a story for another day.
In color and light,