Gordon Building

For many years the Gordon Building satisfied Napa’s sweet tooth. The real story of the Gordon, however, is that of how three real estate moguls left their impact on downtown Napa.

The Gordon Building sits on the old site of the Hayes Theatre. Conceived in 1904, it met the fate of many early wooden buildings in Napa, burning in an accidental fire. The destruction of the Hayes cleared the way for Samuel Gordon to construct the ornate retail building today known as the Gordon Building. After a string of successes building theaters both in San Francisco and Napa, Gordon sought to diversify with his newest construction on First St.

Completed in 1929, the building stands out as a striking example of Spanish Colonial Revival Style. The building is notable for its terra cotta siding and ornate floral details. Along with the former Merrill’s Building, (also a Gordon construction), these are the only two terra cotta buildings in downtown. The Gordon Building’s architectural flourishes qualified it for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. By the 1940s Gordon had turned his sights toward drive-up retail buildings like Food City, the iconic shopping center on Old Sonoma Rd. This change of focus in some ways marked the beginning of a long decline for downtown in favor of new shopping plazas with plentiful parking.

The Gordon’s first lease was to the Bryant Family who ran a popular candy and ice cream making operation through 1936. The shop’s opening was a scene of wonder as a crowd came out to view the Bryant’s new all electric soda fountains. The Napa Register called the shop “a model of modern efficiencies and conveniences.” The Bryants made both their candy and ice cream on site and they were definite forerunners to the local food movement, deliberately sourcing their food and produce locally.

A heart attack forced Edward Bryant from operations in 1936, though his wife continued their business through 1944 when the store was sold off to the Burrell family. The shop continued on as an ice cream parlor and confectioner under the Burrell name through the end of the 1950s. After Burrell’s closure the building was home to the Bookends, a bookstore. Started by the Pieper family, the store went through a succession of owners before shuttering in 2008.

In the first decades of the 21st century the Gordon as well as many other downtown buildings came under the sway of another real estate mogul, George Altamura. Altamura has been a divisive figure in Napa, as well known for his philanthropic work as for his vacant storefronts.

Altamura is a true self-made man. He hitchhiked to Napa at the age of 17 with less than $100 to his name and managed to become downtown Napa’s biggest property owner through a succession of profitable real estate deals. In the past few years Altamura has sold off some of his holdings, mainly to Todd Zapolski, who now owns former Altamura properties including the former Napa Town Center and the Gordon Building.

These deals and the purchase of the Dunne and Merrill’s Buildings have made Zapolski one of downtown Napa’s largest landholders. For Zapolski the goal has been to bring upscale development to Napa’s First St. corridor. The Gordon is once again at the center of these plans, demonstrating that the Gordon Building remains crucial to developer dreams to transform downtown Napa.

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Rebecca Yerger on the Gordon Building
Local historian Rebecca Yerger speaks about the the architectural details of the Gordon Building. Audio courtesy of Rebecca Yerger.
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