Semorile Building

The 1888 Semorile Building has long been considered one of Napa’s finest examples of Victorian era commercial architecture as well as being one of the most notable structures designed by famed Napa architect Luther Turton. While the building has endured for over one hundred years, its life began with fire.

Bartolomeo Semorile first visited California as a young cabin boy on his father’s ship. The Semorile family moved permanently to California from Italy in 1854, settling in the goldfields of Mariposa County where Semorile’s father operated a store. By 1869 Bartolomeo had left gold country to set up a grocery in Napa. Semorile’s original store along with many other structures near the juncture of First and Main caught fire one night, leading to the full loss of several buildings. Bartolomeo Semorile’s damages were estimated at $11,000, a huge sum during that era.

At first Semorile sought to repair the damaged structure, but eventually elected to build a new structure adjacent to his ruined store. He contracted with the young architect Luther Turton for what would be one of Turton’s first commercial designs. From its debut, the Semorile has been considered one of the most attractive buildings in Napa’s downtown sector and an important departure from the false front buildings that dominated Napa at the time.

The building, in the High Victorian Italianate style, was constructed of brick, sandstone and cast iron. It includes a number of embellishments as well: a New Orleans style balcony, decorative medallions, and stained glass windows salvaged from a building in the Mariposa County goldfields. The construction was such that the building suffered no damage from the 1906 earthquake which caused irreparable harm to many other structures in Napa.

The Semorile family lived a quiet, publicity-shy life in the rooms above their grocery store. Civic-minded Bartolomeo aided the local Italian community whenever possible and often served as a court interpreter, exercising some of his self-taught legal skills. He also produced a popular apricot brandy that was sold as far away as New Orleans. The family owned a two-story rooming house between the Semorile Building and the riverfront and another commercial building utilized as a bar (both since demolished). His one brush with the law was an arrest in 1873 for “striking a Chinaman” for which he was fined a total of $7.50. The family lived in the Semorile Building until 1925 when Bartolomeo decided to retire to Piedmont near Oakland.

After Semorile's grocery closed, the building fell steadily into disrepair. It served as a bar until prohibition, then as a furniture shop and antique store among other uses. By the 1960s the building housed a drab second-hand store known as Fireside Thrift. At this point structural problems became apparent. A sagging corner endangered the foundation and three-inch-wide cracks were visible along the façade of the second story.

By 1965, the Semorile Building was virtually abandoned and in imminent danger of demolition as part of the Napa River Linear Parkway Plan which sought to create a greenway through downtown along the banks of the Napa River. The 1974 addition of the building to the National Register of Historic Places helped bolster its status as one of downtown Napa’s architectural gems. Nonetheless, it took a lot of work and money to rehabilitate the Semorile into the condition seen today. For that Napa owes a debt of gratitude to Joseph Boivin, a local architect who took it upon himself to renovate the historic structure. The process included repairs to the façade, the foundation, the replacement of wiring and plumbing, and a full seismic retrofit in 1984 running $400,000 – a price tag well above estimates issued in a 1976 city sponsored report. Unfortunately Boivin did not live long after the project’s completion. He succumbed to a protracted illness in 1985, but his legacy lives on in the beautifully restored building we see today.

Currently the Semorile Building is occupied by Bounty Hunter Rare Wine & Spirits with a wine bar and restaurant on the first floor and the offices for its mail-order business on the second story. Opened in 2003 by Mark Pope, Bounty Hunter has served as a prime watering hole for rare wine enthusiasts and a spot for great barbecue. The barroom is tastefully decorated with a variety of Western paraphernalia and features a lovingly restored ceiling composed of hand pounded Mexican tin tiles. Though not mentioned by name Bounty Hunter is the most likely inspiration for the Glass Act, a bar that plays a prominent role in James Conaway’s 2013 wine themed novel The Nose.

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