The impressive and stately building currently housing the downtown Napa branch of the Wells Fargo Bank is both singular and plural in its architectural design and principles. It is a rare local example that simultaneously embodies two contrasting architectural styles and design philosophies – the elaborate and traditional Classical Revival plus the restrained and streamlined Art Moderne – Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art Deco.
The oldest portion of this downtown Napa financial building is set along the northwest corner of Main and Second Streets. It was constructed in 1923 and officially opened on August 24, 1924, as the Bank of Napa building. While its architectural style is Classical Revival, its aesthetics are rooted in the “City Beautiful” and Beaux-Arts design movements.
The “City Beautiful” inspired architectural movement swept the U.S. following its debut at the 1893 Colombian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. Its principal architect, Daniel Burnham, has been credited with creating this movement. Burnham is also acknowledged for generating its relatively understated design guidelines. He said, “Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”
The “City Beautiful” style eventually blended with the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts aesthetics which included, among other things, the incorporation of artistic architectural embellishments. This design hybrid remained popular well into the 20th Century. Its advocates and enthusiasts considered it to be “the architecture for all time…grand in scale, symmetrical and luxuriously appointed with Classical ornaments…,” said architectural historian and author Carol Rifkind.
The Classical Revival style of this architectural era was used primarily for designing commercial and governmental buildings, such as the Bank of Napa building. In addition to the previously mentioned architectural movements, the Classical Revival style was inspired by the Greek and Roman design principles.
Referred to as “Classicism” by architectural historians, these design principles incorporated an overall symmetry or balance of a building’s details, elements and general form. For example, the two-story windows of the building flank its Main Street entrance creating a visually impressive and balanced appearance. This principle of visual symmetry is repeated within the bank’s Second Street elevation as its windows are evenly placed within that facade. Also, these windows retain their original 1923 cast iron frames.
Other Classical Revival detailing incorporated into the Bank of Napa building include paired Doric columns and pilasters, an ornamented pediment above the Main Street entrance, an ornate cornice and parapet as well as a sculpted frieze with dentil work.
This exuberance extended into the building’s interior. It features the original marble wainscoting, brass details and elaborate sculpted cast plaster ceiling.
Left is a copper detail of a lobby table and on the right, the restored ceiling. Photos courtesy: Napa County Landmarks.
The north elevation of the building is essentially void of architectural details. Originally this elevation was concealed by an adjacent building.
In 1934 the Bank of Napa building was expanded with a one-story addition attached to its western elevation. It is located along the northeast corner of Second and Brown Streets.
By that time, America was in the grips of the Great Depression. The architectural design philosophies of that era reflected the American society’s general rejection of the structural ornamentation and design principles of the traditional architecture of the past.
Being conscious of this rebellion as well as the financial austerity of that era, architects stripped many of their building designs of most of their surface ornamentation. This removal of the traditional detailing created smooth wall surfaces and streamlined designs. This architectural era and design principle became known as the “Modernistic” movement.
Some of the most popular styles and designs of the “Modernistic” era were Art Moderne, Art Deco and WPA (Works Progress, later Projects, Administration) Art Deco – a simplified version of Art Deco. Generally, these styles can be distinguished from one another. For example, Art Moderne designs usually have a lower and chunkier silhouette. However, there are buildings where these styles have been combined to create a hybrid design. One such building is the 1934 Bank of Napa addition. While predominately Art Moderne in style, it does feature some WPA Art Deco architectural details.
As for the Bank of Napa addition, it possesses the smooth wall surfaces, streamlined form, horizontal silhouette and decorative wall detailing grooves of the Art Moderne style. However, it also features some WPA Art Deco details found in the vertical towers flanking the Brown Street entrance. They are embellished with stylized geometric designs.
These austere and restrained characteristics of the “Modernistic” era detailing the 1934 addition offer a stylistic contrast to the elaborate details of the 1923 prosperous Classical Revival era portion of the Bank of Napa building. However, despite their architectural differences, overall, the building is visually cohesive.
Then, in 1985 – 1987 the entire Bank of Napa building was rehabilitated. That project cost over a million dollars. In the 1990s it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Bank of Napa was established in 1871. Its Board of Trustees has some historically significant Napa County resident pioneers; including Chancellor Hartson who successfully championed the campaign to locate the State Hospital in Napa.
Over the course of its history, the Bank of Napa has occupied other financial purpose buildings. Its present-day site bounded by Main, Second and Brown Streets was occupied by three other buildings – all of the Italianate Architectural style – prior to 1923.
The westernmost building, facing onto Second and Brown Streets, housed the Andrews and Lamdin Grocery Store on its first floor. Finance related and professional businesses were located on the second floor.
The pair of buildings once facing Main Street were commissioned by the Bank of Napa. The one set alongside Main and Second Streets, built in 1872, housed the financial institution. The second building, attached to the bank’s north-facing wall, was the first building designed by John Parkinson, who would become Los Angeles’ premier architect. Constructed in 1887-88, it housed retail businesses on its first floor and financial offices upstairs.
These buildings, as well as earlier Bank of Napa financial institutions, were once part of the former financial district of Napa. Over time five different local banks stood within a block of the current Wells Fargo Bank site on Main Street.
The entire Bank of Napa building reflects of the divergence in American idioms and history. The result is a rare hybrid of two contrasting yet visually cohesive architectural styles.
This article was originally published by Rebecca Yerger for the Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine featured in the May 2013 edition. Photos added by Napa County Landmarks.