The historic stone building at Freemark Abbey has been an iconic Napa Valley landmark for well over 100 years. Originally constructed in 1886, the structure graces the label of one of the valley’s legacy wineries, renowned for its participation in the pivotal Judgement of Paris wine tasting of 1976 – a distinction that placed the Napa Valley squarely on the world wine stage.
The genesis of Freemark Abbey dates back to 1881 when Josephine and John Tychson purchased 147 acres in the Napa Valley. Five years later, after John’s death, Josephine built her original redwood winery on the current site of Freemark Abbey in St. Helena. Josephine earned a place in the history books as the first female vintner in California, making the winery that would become Freemark Abbey groundbreaking in more ways than one.
Originally less than half its current size, the stone building at Freemark Abbey was organically built over time, as more temperature-controlled space was needed for wine-making functions, (stone makes perfect sense for this purpose). Far from a professional effort, the original structure was constructed by the same hands that farmed the grapes and made the wine, in the historical tradition of a barn-raising. The various stages of construction are evident in the different stonework and coursing patterns throughout the rambling structure, and in the hand-hewn quality of the stone and mortar walls. According to SB Architects’ project manager Jim Brenza, “Every elevation had its own logic, but no two were the same.”
Over time, the historic significance of this naturally beautiful structure was obscured as additions covered up the original facade, new uses unrelated to winemaking filled the street-facing spaces, and rear spaces were under-utilized. Jackson Family Wines, which purchased the historic winery in 2006, sought to restore both the history and beauty of the rough-hewn structure, re-connecting it to its history and making it a compelling destination in the modern era.
The primary design challenge was to bring light into the low-profile stone structure in a way that felt authentic, yet provided an element of surprise.The historic nature of the building dictated carefully modulated design solutions that would maintain the integrity of the facade and the height of the original roof line. As visitors cross the threshold of original stone facade, they are now greeted by a light-filled space – not at all what they expect as they approach the stone facade. True to expectation, the original stone structure was indeed very dark, its thick walls penetrated by just a few small windows set into the stone.
The solution lay in a six-foot wide ridge skylight that runs nearly the entire length of the ridge line, augmented by a board-and-batten clerestory. Punctuated by windows, this clerestory also serves to raise the roof line by three feet above the height of the original 7-foot stone walls , heightening the interior volumes significantly. New steel trusses are carefully stitched into the fabric of the original structure. Custom designed with a gracefully arched underside, the exposed structure is modeled upon the trusses found in the renovated Ferry Building in San Francisco. The distressed Douglas Fir floors emphasize the sense of history. The quiet drama of the expansive space is built of contrasts: stone and steel, old and new, bulky and delicate, rough texture and smooth.
This soaring new space is now the setting for a flexible space that is able to meet a multitude of needs as the hospitality elements of the winery continue to grow and evolve. A beautiful boardroom, crafted from a dim space that for decades housed a candle-making enterprise, now plays host of VIP tastings. The lower level houses one of the largest wine libraries in the Napa Valley, where vintage tastings will be offered for club members and collectors. The original barrel room, which has been completely restored, will be available for larger groups of up to 200 people.
To the left of the historic entry, (rediscovered during demolition), lies the Two Birds One Stone, the new restaurant by acclaimed chefs Douglas Keane and Sang Yoon. The new space that houses Two Birds One Stone is designed as a serene, indoor/outdoor space, taking advantage of the existing openings in the facade. A 1970s addition at the front of the property has been replaced by an elegant yakitori terrace. Along Highway 29, lounge seating, fire features and fountains provide a transition from the business of the street to the tranquility of the restaurant space.
Old and new, historic and thoroughly modern, the new Freemark Abbey speaks evocatively of the new architecture of wine in the Napa Valley. Respectful of the structure’s deep historical roots, the newly-renovated property nonetheless provides an experience of wine and food that is set unmistakably in the present.