St. John the Baptist School, Churches & Campus
In light of the recent news that St. John the Baptist School will be closing this year, NCL thought it appropriate to publish the following article written by Rebecca Yerger for the Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine featured in the December 2016 edition.
Some historical buildings are part of a collection of historically and architecturally significant buildings located on the same property. These buildings, their history and architectural heritage are so intertwined their stories need to be told in concert with one another. This is the case of the St. John the Baptist School, churches and campus.
The St. John the Baptist Catholic School has been a neighborhood fixture for almost 90 years. However, the property it rests upon has been associated with Napa’s Catholic community for an even longer time – 160 years. It all began with the September 28, 1856 donation of the Main Street portion of the current campus by George Cornwell to the Catholic Church. Three years later in 1859, the first of three Napa Catholic churches were built on that lot. Its construction was initially supervised by Father James Largan.
During his brief Napa stay, this Irish missionary is said to have attributed another historically significant event. The name of the school and churches – St. John the Baptist – is attributed to Largan. It is also said, he so longed for his beloved St. John the Baptist Church of Ireland that when he commissioned the construction of Napa’s first Catholic church, he named it St. John the Baptist Church. That building was eventually demolished due to damage caused by the 1898 earthquake. It’s site is now part of the school’s current playground area.
Nearly three decades would pass after that demolition before the current school building would open its doors for the first time. The school’s first constructed section faces Napa Street and was dedicated on December 19, 1926. An addition to the school was built in 1951.
However, before the ground was broken for the that school, the first Catholic school was located within the Franklin Street building now owned and occupied by Community Projects, Inc. That school opened on January 15, 1912 with 120 students.
This off-site location proved to be problematic and expensive to run. However, through financial reorganization and its prudent management, that school continued to operate while funds were raised for the Napa Street school.
The present-day school building is of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Revival styles offer a nostalgic yet contemporary interpretation of past design styles. Although their features, details and all are frequently informal versions of the original elements, they lend an artistic nod to the past. The Spanish Colonial Revival style gained in popularity during the early 1900s as Californians rediscovered and acknowledged the State’s Hispanic heritage.
As for the school’s style and details, its 1970s Historic Resources Inventory form said, its “Spanish Colonial Revival influence is most pronounced in the molded cornice of the two-story building and (wraps around the Main and Napa Streets elevations of the school as well as) in the entryway on Napa Street. Note the spiraled pilasters (small-scale decorative columns) flanking the semi-circular arched doorway, the balcony above the door and the curvilinear cornice window head of the second story window. The tiled roof has an asymmetrical gable over the entryway. Wall surfaces are stuccoed as is characteristic of the style.” Also a decoratively detailed semi-circular arched door, entryway and a second-floor balcony with columns detail the southern, or playground, elevation.
When the school was opened, the Catholic congregation gathered for masses and more within their wood-frame Neo, Victorian, Gothic style church set alongside Main and Caymus Streets. Its cornerstone was laid on January 7, 1881. That ceremony and the church’s construction was carried out under the watchful eye of Father Maurice D. Slattery.
During his 25-year tenure as the St. John the Baptist pastor, he also had a new rectory built and started the construction of a new parish hall in 1900. As a result of all these new structural additions to the campus, Slattery received the moniker of “the builder” pastor.
Regarding the design details of the 1881 church, its style, Victorian Gothic, was in vogue from 1870-1900. In contrast to the picturesque aesthetics of the earlier occurring, 1840-1880, Gothic Revival style, the Victorian Gothic style possesses a more imposing and complicated form using exaggerated shapes, such as exceptionally tall spires, steep roofs and broad gables. A pronounced verticality is a key Victorian Gothic feature which is created by thrusting elements including pointed arches, steep spires, pinnacles and finials. Projecting surfaces provide elaborate shadow patterns plus their ornamentation is profuse and unique. All these elements and features generate visual interest.
The circa 1881 church served its community until the third and current church opened for its first mass on October 30, 1966. Eventually, the late-1800s church was razed.
The 1966 building was designed by Henry Schubart and Germano Milano. It embraces the then new concepts and ideology model established by the Vatican II Council in 1962. In fact, the present-day church is known as the Vatican II St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. Part of these new precepts were to make the church more open and accessible, including the physical layout of the church interior.
Regarding the significance of this campus and its buildings, the 1970s Inventory form said, they are “highly visible and a neighborhood landmark…” and in part “…comprise a distinctive district in Napa in which St. John’s School and Church plays a significant social and educational role.”