The landmark First Presbyterian Church which sits at the corner of Third and Randolph Streets in Downtown Napa has a storied history. Since its construction in 1874 it has stood as a truly unique example of Victorian Gothic Architecture, notable for its ornate spire and striking stained glass windows. Built by architects R.H. Daley and Theodore Eisen, the building achieved landmark status in 1975.
The congregation, however, did not always meet in such magnificent surroundings. Napa’s First Presbyterian congregation was founded between 1853 and 1854 by a travelling preacher named James Milton Small. The first permanent reverend, James C. Herron, held church services in private homes and the old County Courthouse, as did many other local congregations.
Herron left the church in a spat over whether to include instrumental music in church services, Herron standing firmly against the practice. Herron’s resignation is ironic in light of the fact that in later years the church would become known for its impressive organ works.
After Herron’s tenure the congregation was led by R.H. Veeder, the same Veeder for whom a peak in mountains to the west of Napa is named. But the best known leader in the congregation’s history was Richard Wylie, a migrant from the east. Wylie was oficially installed as pastor July 21, 1867. His most important accomplishment was the construction of the well-known chapel, the foundation of which was laid in 1874, creating a permanent home for the church.
Unlike his predecessor James Herron, Wylie was a big supporter of church music. He arranged for a church organ to be shipped from San Francisco and installed in the newly constructed church. He even went so far as to marry the church’s organist Harriet Gibbs.
For many years Wylie lived in a residence adjacent to the chapel. Today the Christian Education Building stands on the site of Wylie’s longtime home. Wylie was a notable figure in the City of Napa’s history. Besides running the church for 55 years, he was an avid gardener and arborist, planting trees along Franklin St. and Soscol Blvd. He also helped shelter survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and could be easily identified on the streets of Napa riding his signature bicycle. Wylie died at his home on May 23, 1923.
Despite space concerns over the years, the congregation voted several times to preserve the historic chapel building. A major restoration took place in 1948, leaving intact the building’s architectural signatures. While Wylie’s successor also lived in the house adjacent to the chapel, by the 1950s the cottage was no longer in use. Looking to expand its facilities under the leadership of pastor Erwin Bollinger, the addition known as the Christian Education Building was constructed between 1956 and 1959.
The 2014 South Napa Quake brought down plaster in the sanctuary, smashed some of the building's impressive stained glass windows and damaged the church's organ. No significant structural damage was reported, but most notably, the church's steeple has been askew since the August earthquake.