Still Proudly Standing, Napa’s Hall of Records

Peter Saucerman

August 29, 2014


A violent earthquake a few days ago in Northern California left many people and buildings badly shaken. The cities of Napa and Vallejo were particularly hard hit. Thankfully, the early Sunday morning event meant few people were out and about, resulting in relatively minimal injuries. Many older buildings were severely damaged however – particularly historic, unreinforced brick structures. Entire blocks of downtown Napa were severely jolted and remain uninhabitable.

One historic building that emerged without damage is the Napa County Hall of Records. Originally constructed in 1916, it was subject to an extensive seismic upgrade as part of the County Courthouse renovation and expansion (both buildings are attached) in the late 1990’s. Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects took the lead on this renovation, with engineering support from DASSE Design (now Thornton Tomasetti).


On the Monday following the earthquake, most County government offices were closed to staff and public. The Superior Courthouse, one of the newest government buildings in town, was one of very few open for business. Nearly every other downtown building used by the County and the Courts was closed and subject to seismic inspection. The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) dispatched a team of engineers and architects to Napa within the week to evaluate buildings throughout the County. Paul Menard, AIA was the AOC lead architect for this effort.

“We spent half a day crawling through the attics of the historic courthouse complex,” said Mr. Menard. “While the historic Courthouse suffered significant damage, the Hall of Records came through with flying colors.” The shaking was so violent that several lenses from the second floor light pendants were dislodged and fell to the ground. But the walls, windows and tile roof, as well as mechanical, electrical and security systems, all emerged unscathed. The AOC expects to have this part of the justice complex back in service within weeks and at minimal cost.

Napa County Hall of Records Historic Renovation, 1997

Brick buildings are a priceless resource, essential to our historic and civic architectural heritage. Without modern seismic reinforcement, however, they can be reduced to rubble in an instant. An important part of our architectural practice involves saving and rehabilitating such structures for continued use.

Current renovation projects we have on the boards include the Southern Pacific Locomotive Works which is part of the Downtown Railyards, the PG&E Jibboom Street power plant becoming the Powerhouse Science Center and the Fremont School, the new home for the performing arts in Sacramento. These are all historic masonry buildings we are carefully renovating (with our Structural engineering partners) for second lives.

We can’t predict when or where future earthquakes will occur. But we can prepare our prized historic buildings to withstand the shaking, protect life and property and remain as part of our cultural heritage.

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