While not Napa’s first newspaper, the Napa Register is without a doubt Napa’s longest running and most influential daily. The building at 1202 First St. is today the site of law offices and a restaurant, but for most of the 20th century it housed the Napa Register’s printing press and newsroom.
The Napa Register was launched by James I. Horrell amid one of the most divisive periods of American history. In 1863 opposing political factions had taken up arms in what is today known as the American Civil War. While Napa was geographically isolated from the fighting, many battles were fought with words in the local press of the day.
The first edition of the Register, August 10, 1863, was published in support of the Union cause and in direct opposition to other local papers sympathetic to the Confederacy. A mix of poetry, politics, ill-informed medical advice, and advertisements, the first edition was short on news, but long on diatribes against so-called “copperheads” who wished to strike a conciliatory accord with the Southern rebels. Firmly behind President Lincoln, the Register’s editor called for the hanging of competing editors at the Daily Reporter and the Echo for what he called “treasonous activity.” Things were so tense between competing editors in Napa that after President Lincoln’s assassination the editor of the southern leaning Napa Echo left town for fear of mobs stirred up by the Register. Horrell put his sentiments quite succinctly: “There can be but two parties: one of patriots, the other of traitors.”
Horrell eventually joined the Union Army. At some point during his service he had a change of heart. When he returned to Napa in 1868, the competing Napa County Reporter claimed he had become a Democrat while in the East, a member of the very same party he had called treasonous a few years earlier. The Republican Napa Register was suspiciously silent about his homecoming.
The Register produced its early editions out of a succession of storefronts and haphazard locations, including a loft adjacent to the Opera House and from inside the old Odd Fellows Hall, before a permanent home on First St. was built in 1905. By that time the paper had passed through a number of owners eventually falling to George M. Francis who owned the Register for over fifty years. Affectionately known as Papa George, he was responsible for professionalizing the paper and leading the project to construct a long term home for the Register.
A two story brick construction, the 1905 Register Building is notable for its arched windows. At first the paper used only the first floor while the top floor hosted a dance studio.
The Francis family was the rock around which the Register built up its name in the Valley. George M. Francis was the first to take the paper to a daily format at the instigation of the competing Napa Reporter which had announced a daily edition as well. In response, Francis beat the Reporter to the punch producing a daily edition before the Reporter had their presses primed. Besides being the Register’s editor Francis was also Napa’s postmaster and the Director of the Napa Asylum. Upon his death in 1932, the Imola Street Bridge over the Napa River was named the George M. Francis Memorial Bridge in his honor. While the bridge has been replaced and renamed since that time, this honor was indicative of his place in Napa society of the day.
Francis’s son George H. Francis took over ownership in 1932 and led the paper’s further expansion. The building’s top floor began to be used for editorial and advertising work. The younger Francis sold the paper to Whitfield Grifiths in 1945 and the Register’s footprint expanded further with an annex added to the backside of the building to house the press room. By 1958 the paper had been bought out by Napa Valley Publishing Company, whose president was Philip E. Swift.
The 1955 flood, which inundated much of downtown Napa, also affected the Register. All the paper’s presses were made unusable by the high water. The competing Napa Journal’s presses had to be used to keep up with the paper’s scheduled editions.
The Register vacated its First St. home in 1965, moving to its current home at the corner of Second and Wilson streets. After a period of vacancy the Old Register Building was home to Stage One Fashions, a clothing boutique which operated through most of the 1970’s. Since 1982 the Register Building has been home to a series of restaurants, including the Salad Mill, where you could get a healthy salad plate and then completely splurge on an ice cream soda, and the Stone & Vine, which specialized in English pub fare.
In 2000, the century old building became the home of Sushi Mambo. The year after Sushi Mambo’s occupancy began was a rough one. The restaurant and the law offices upstairs were beset by both an earthquake and a fire. While the Register Building had fared well in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it was deemed uninhabitable after a 5.2 earthquake struck Napa and Yountville on September 3, 2000. During the necessary seismic retrofit the building caught fire on the night of January 15, 2001. The three alarm fire caused severe damage to both the law offices and the restaurant. For months the fate of the building hung in the balance until a June, 2001 announcement confirmed that the building would be restored despite sustaining over $750,000 in damages. A year and a half later the building reopened after $1.2 million dollars had been spent on further seismic retrofits and repairs.
In 2014 the building was purchased by the Beckstoffer family with the aim of preserving the building through the auspices of their family trust. Before long the Beckstoffer family met their first challenge in the preservation of the structure when the South Napa Quake caused major damage. While the building received Mills Act funds to help repair the building, the popular Sushi Mambo restaurant was not spared. The restaurant's owners picked up the pieces and moved their business to Calistoga. As of 2015, the building was facing a long road to repair.