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Napa Residents to Gehry Project: Put a Cork in It

Opponents say proposed building on a wine estate would make local traffic bottlenecks even worse.

September 21, 2004|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

ST. HELENA, Calif. — A head-turning Frank Gehry design might be fine for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, said longtime Napa Valley resident Don McGrath, but here in the heart of California wine country, it would be likely to create more unwanted traffic jams.

"I'm a big fan of Gehry buildings," said McGrath, 73, spreading out photographs of the celebrated Los Angeles architect's works on his glass-topped coffee table, "but I think this is the wrong place to put one."

Retired winemaker McGrath and several neighbors in St. Helena are leading opposition to plans by wealthy Texas-based businessman Craig Hall and his wife, attorney and former U.S. ambassador to Austria Kathryn Walt Hall, to put a Gehry-designed building on their wine estate flanking nearby Highway 29.

To bolster his point about traffic, McGrath has produced a seven-minute video -- with a soundtrack from Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" -- documenting congestion on the busy two-lane road, one of only two that traverse the narrow Napa Valley. A Gehry building, he argues, would exacerbate the problem by adding hordes of rubber-necking tourists.

Sitting over glasses of crisp, chilled Sauvignon Blanc in their tasting room on a recent afternoon, the Halls said they felt blindsided by the local fuss over something they thought would be welcomed by the community.

"I don't want to make any bones about it. This thing has really bothered me," confessed Craig Hall, 54, who made his fortune in property development. "I really thought it was something that would be celebrated."

The proposed Gehry design calls for construction of a vaulted underground building that would be covered by a sloping vineyard slowly rising to a height of 20 feet to accommodate the underground structure.

Set well back from the road, partly obscured by the raised vineyard, would be a 50-foot stucco, glass and wood hospitality center with familiar Gehryesque asymmetrical curves, looking something like a loosely wrapped Christmas package swaddled in ribbons.

The plans take care to preserve limestone walls from the original winery at the location, which dates to 1885. Renovation of the 120-year-old wine estate would cost around $70 million, Hall said.

"For Gehry," said Kathryn Hall, 57, a native Californian whose family formerly owned wine estates in Mendocino County, "it's a very small project. We were thrilled that he would take it."

Although best known for his larger works, including the Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry has designed wineries in Spain and Canada.

In recent years, the Napa Valley has seen a proliferation of high-concept winery designs.

Up the road near Calistoga, vintner Jan Shrem, who made a fortune selling English-language reference books in Japan, hired Princeton University architect Michael Graves to build an ultramodern winery and sculpture garden for his Clos Pegase estate.

Not far away in the Stag's Leap district, Southern California grocery magnate Darioush Khaledi, a native of the Shiraz district of Iran, has just completed a massive edifice partly modeled on the ruins of Persepolis, capital of the ancient Persian Empire.

The daring designs, like the traffic, are not always appreciated by the local residents.

"I have a new name for the Napa Valley," said Lidia McGrath, 70. "I call it 'Monument Valley,' because everyone wants to be the biggest and the best."

Last week, the Hall-Gehry plan won unanimous support from the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. Chamber Chief Executive Rex Stults described opponents of the Gehry plan as "sky-is-falling Chicken Littles."

"What other community can you find," asked Stults, 36, "where people are arguing over taking one of the ugliest existing buildings and have it replaced by the work of one of the world's most famous architects?"

No one disputes that the dilapidated old winery, formerly the Napa Valley Cooperative, is one of the more unsightly structures along the wine country corridor.

"It's an old Central Valley-style industrial winery," said Bob Torres, 44, whose family founded St. Helena's Sutter Home wine business. Torres, who studied architecture at UC Berkeley, describes the Halls' proposal as a "great project for St. Helena."

After starting to buy up Napa wine properties in 1995, the Halls now own more than 500 acres of prime vineyards. They bought the 33-acre site for the proposed Gehry project for $12 million in 2003.

Napa County has a history of anti-growth sentiment. In 1968, it was the first place in the country to establish the now-common "agriculture preservation" standards that limit the size of parcels that can be subdivided for development.

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