Downtown Napa’s oldest commercial building, locally known as the Sam Kee Laundry, has long been a site into which immigrants have pitched their dream of a better life.
Built by the German immigrant Phillip Pfieffer in 1875 from hand-cut local sandstone, the building was a milestone: the first stone building in Napa. Originally constructed as a brewery, Pfieffer soon sold his business. After a couple changes in ownership it landed in the hands of another German, Gottleib Barth. Barth quickly expanded the operation, growing the brewery into one of California’s largest in just two years. A devastating fire in 1881 put an end to Barth’s growing success in beer making, destroying Barth’s wooden additions to the building and leaving only the original stone structure.
After Barth’s catastrophe, Pfeiffer once again took over ownership of the building and renamed the establishment the Stone Saloon. Pfeiffer took advantage of the building’s location near the local red light district to rent the top floor of his saloon to a brothel. At the turn of the century Napa was home to California’s largest red light district north of San Francisco with at least twenty houses of ill repute dotting the area around Clinton St.
During the 1920s and 30s the building saw a number of uses including an Italian grocery and a chicken hatchery. In 1937 it became the Sam Kee Laundry. An immigrant from China, Sam Kee left his life and family behind in order to earn a better living. His initial success in the laundry business was met with opposition in Napa. After several years in operation, the City tried to zone his business out of existence by setting up a laundry free zone in the district that Sam Kee had occupied for eight years. Kee fought the ordinance taking his complaint to the Ninth District of the Supreme Court where the City’s zoning law was struck down in an opinion written by Judge Sawyer. The law was deemed an infringement on Kee’s constitutional rights.
By the 1970s the Sam Kee Building found itself in the path of redevelopment. Napa’s redevelopment plans had slated the historic building to become either a parking lot or newer commercial space. These ideas were derailed by David and Kathleen Kernberger who applied to have the building added to the National Register of Historic Places. Their goal was achieved in 1974, a move which made it much more difficult for the City to remove the historic building.
A succession of Chinese families ran the laundry up through the 1970s still under the Sam Kee name. The Bik Wong family was the last of these. Wong’s daughter recounts those years:
"I have fleeting memories of living above the laundry. Space was cramped with my grandparents, parents and four sisters, but I was happy. Little did I know that my father struggled to put rice on the table for us. My father stoically bore the brunt of providing for five daughters on a salary that qualified him for welfare. However, he was proud and did not want the government to take over his responsibility."
Though preservation saved the building, it was unable to save the family owned business inside. By the 1970s many Napans no longer needed laundry services, or they expected a faster turnover than the Sam Kee operation could provide. The laundry closed in 1977 due to rising rent and declining business.
In recent years the building has served as Andrews Meat Market and currently as the Vintner’s Collective, a tasting room hosting a collection of like-minded wine makers.
The Sam Kee Laundry Building sustained some of the worst damage in the South Napa Quake. The 1875 building's entire façade was demolished by the force of the shaking. While the Sam Kee Building was the star of many television news reports on destruction in Napa, the physical core of the building was left largely intact.