In one form or another, a bank has been located at the northwest corner of Main and Second for over 140 years. The building that is today Wells Fargo Bank has been firmly at the center of Napa’s financial life for nearly as long as the City of Napa has existed.
Though many bankers have worked at this Main St. location over the years, none has been as colorful as the founder of the Bank of Napa. Chancellor Hartson, after wrapping up an illustrious career as a lawyer, a district attorney, and a California Assemblyman, decided to try his hand at banking. With a group of investors that read like a who’s who of Napa’s leading businessmen and politicians, Hartson founded the Bank of Napa in 1871. The bank operated out a small frame building until a proper building could be erected on land purchased at the corner of Second and Main St.
Besides being a bank president, lawyer, and politician, Hartson was also nationally known as one of the leading public speakers of his day. A speech he gave to the California Assembly in regards to Bill 404 was so popular that its printed edition managed to sell out of a print run of 75,000 copies. He also delivered a well-circulated speech eulogizing President Ulysses S. Grant.
Though Hartson was one of Napa and the State of California’s leading citizens, that is not to say he always used his speaking prowess for good. Hartson delivered a forceful speech at a Napa anti-Chinese rally in 1886. In it he called for the removal of all Chinese from the United States. Unfortunately, this sentiment was popular in Napa at the time. However, Hartson’s remarks at a local temperance rally were not well-received. Hartson spoke in support of banning alcohol for which he had to backpedal, stating categorically that he did not wish to ban wine, which even at that early date was a major Napa County industry. Though a popular speaker, Hartson failed to convert his popularity into a congressional seat. He tried three times to win a seat in the House of Representatives, losing each time by a close margin.
While the original 1872 Bank of Napa Building was well respected in the community for its architectural flourish, it lacked room for the bank’s expanding operations. In 1923, long-serving bank president Henry Brown led the effort to construct a new, more contemporary building. While the new bank was under construction, awkward security operations were required. While most bank functions were moved to a building on the other side of the street during construction, deposits had to be carried nightly across Main St. to the bank’s old vault. Bank president Henry Brown’s burly son Robert accompanied the transfer each night, carrying a loaded pistol, ensuring the cash made it securely into the locked vault housed in the construction site.
The completed Beaux Arts style building was most notable for its striking ceiling covered in floral designs. This ornamentation did not come without sacrifice; two workers were killed while working on these ceiling patterns.
The Bank of Napa sold out to Security Bank and Trust in 1927 and later became a long running branch of Bank of America which operated out of the building through 1984. Since then a succession of banks roomed in the structure: American Savings & Loan, then Napa National Bank, and finally Wells Fargo.
Today the building has been artfully restored, standing as a reminder of Napa’s former financial center based around the corner of First and Main, once home to as many as ten banks.