Oberon Bar

The Oberon building is a survivor.  Throughout its history it has been burned, targeted by prohibitionists, and slated for demolition on multiple occasions. A bar has occupied the site of the Oberon building for more than a hundred years.  Today the building stands as the only Art Deco commercial structure of note in Napa County.

A barroom has occupied the site of the Oberon building since at least 1895.  At the time the property was owned by Maria Bihler and the Oberon Bar was run by Charles Dreyer.  Dreyer, a veteran bartender, was a believer in innovation.  He installed the city’s first electric fans in 1898 and introduced the popular Olympia Oyster Cocktail, a concoction of shellfish and cocktail sauce, to Napa’s bar patrons. 

Dreyer bought out Bihler in 1900 for $8,000 just in time to be confronted with America’s changing sentiments about alcohol.  In 1901 the bar was threatened with attack by Dr. C.H. Farman, a local prohibitionist, who had planned a smashing rampage of Napa’s local barrooms to express his disapproval of liquor sales.  While the Oberon was unscathed, the nearby Revere House suffered a broken bar mirror.  The Oberon was spared again in 1917 when restrictive state laws limiting drinking establishments led to the closure of nearly half of Napa’s barrooms. 

During the prohibition era the Oberon survived as a soda fountain, but the original building did not survive for long after the taps were turned back on in 1933.  The original frame structure burned down in 1934 and was replaced by the attractive Art Deco building seen today.  One of the structure’s most notable features is the tile work set by Archie Combellack – a feature that likely saved the building from demolition in the later part of the twentieth century. 

For much of its history, the Oberon building was subdivided.  A variety of businesses shared floor space within the same building.  These included the namesake bar, a cigar shop, a barbershop, and a card room.  One of mid-century Napa’s most colorful characters was Lou Paine, owner of the cigar shop.  Known as the Mayor of Main St., Paine was notable for his outsized personality.  On one occasion he chased a card room patron fleeing from his debts out onto Main St. with his pistol, firing several times into the air.

Since at least the 1960s the Oberon has been the subject of demolition plans as Napa attempted to redevelop its downtown.  Proponents for preservation in the Save the Oberon Committee rescued the building from the jaws of demolition crews in 1978.  After a contentious fight, the Napa City Council voted to save the building despite the objections of City Manager William Bobf who made no qualms about his opinion, stating, “It is not the intention of the City of Napa to maintain an alleged historic bar in perpetuity.”

Many attempts to revitalize the property followed.  Restaurateur Bernard Pradel tried a French Country restaurant in the space in 1979, an idea that was perhaps before its time.  Pradel changed formats in 1981 opening a popular, though short lived, nightclub.  The building’s transition to becoming a popular brew pub began in 1988 when Chuck Ankeny installed brewery equipment for what would become Willet’s Brewery and Restaurant.  In 1993 Joe Peatman and Joe Ruffino took over the space, founding Downtown Joe’s, a popular microbrewery and restaurant specializing in high quality American fare.  Today Downtown Joe’s offers a wide variety of microbrews on tap, great food, and some of the best views of the river in downtown Napa.

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Audio

Rebecca Yerger on the Oberon Bar
Local historian Rebecca Yerger speaks about the the architectural details of theOberon Bar. Audio courtesy of Rebecca Yerger.
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