Bringing Napa’s Oldest Building Back to Life
As with many things that have lived a long time, the Old Adobe on the corner of Soscol Avenue and Silverado Trail has been glorious and seedy, renowned and rubble, loved and disabused, and now loved again.
It was here that the shape of Napa County, and in fact much of Northern California, was formed when Don Cayetano Juarez was bestowed a land grant of two leagues (almost 9,000 acres) as reward for his services managing the region and its Indian population under General Vallejo. The grant was called Rancho Tulucay (pronounced Two low ki) after the Indian inhabitants of a village in the area, the Tulkays and Ulucas.
Juarez built the home in 1845 for his wife and 11 children using one of the oldest and most common building materials known to man – adobe brick. It is the oldest structure in Napa County, and the only remaining adobe, a testament to the area’s Mexican heritage.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Cayetano Juarez Adobe as it is officially known has been a home, a restaurant, a bar, and the property has supported a body repair shop, a barber shop, and a real estate office among other things. Recently purchased by Justin and Santino Altamura family, the Adobe has been undergoing a loving restoration.
The preservation of history is an important endeavor, often only undertaken by those with a true passion for the past and quest to safeguard its treasures. Justin Altamura and his team of friends and co-workers, Ryan Dick and Erik Jensen are such people.
They have with patience and care removed the blight on the structure, rebuilt areas that were eroding, revealed hidden details, and pulled off one of the most elegant earthquake retrofits this author has ever seen.
“This would not be the way it is without my friends,” Altamura says of Dick and Jensen. They are extremely hard working and never complain. Altamura credits many of the restoration efforts to ideas and help from his friends.
Last summer they were turning out adobe bricks at the rate of 50 to 70 a day, and have probably used between 300 and 400 in the reconstruction. Altamura estimates that they will need a “whole lot more” to finish the final details of the compound around the building. The very large bricks (around a foot and a half long) are made by hand with clay, horse manure, and hay. They usually take about a day to make and around five days to dry enough to be used in construction. Helping with the brick making is the mother-son team of Fausto and Maria Pena who learned their trade in Mexico.
A young man, Altamura does not describe himself as a seasoned carpenter, and has implemented the tools of his generation: YouTube, Google, forums, as well as historical records to find most of the information on how to bring this gem back to life.
He confesses a long love of adobe buildings in particular, and history in general. “Adobe buildings are amazing! There is such a good vibe in them.”
Altamura had collected a number of documents and photos, during his research into the history of the building itself and the construction of these types of buildings across the West. Unfortunately, these were lost when his home was burnt down during the October fires. He made it out with his animals, but not much else.
When you listen to Altamura talk about the Adobe and Juarez, you feel the connection that he has to building and its past. “Juarez was a carpenter,” Altamura says, pointing out little details not normally seen in adobe construction – old beams with beading and graceful curves on supporting rafters. The rear 8×8 posts, except for one, are all original old growth redwood columns and the house is filled with original wood and “found” pieces that Altamura has sourced as what would be “the exact wood that Cayetano used.”
Beautiful red, gold, and amber tones shine from the wood that is not stained but lovingly burnished and clear coated to show its beauty. All the white structures on the outside are the newer parts of the building and the whitewash is authentic lime, salt, and water. None of the old adobe is covered with stucco, which Altamura says is actually bad for adobe. It instead has a clear sealing that lets the bricks breathe and will need to be reapplied every few years.
Much has been re-used including the doors, shutters, and all square nails that were pulled from areas being removed or rehabilitated. “This place deserves this care,” Altamura says as he talks about Mrs. Juarez fending off a horse thief, or the latter history when a fire occurred and bricks from the old Napa State Hospital were used to rebuild a fireplace.
At this writing, Altamura is currently waiting on final permits from the City and is looking for the next tenant. He is hopeful that a restaurant or even brewery might be interested in the property that includes three other buildings – also, all undergoing restoration.
One thing is certain, Altamura is adamant that the new tenant has deep appreciation and respect for the building.
In the last 15 years, the face of Napa has changed significantly. New land laws have been created that will allow for further growth, building heights have been raised and density increased. But, in one little corner on Soscol Avenue a small adobe building will continue to sit – thanks to its preservation – a building that was scooped out of the mud of the land and it marks the beginning of Napa as we know it today.