Napa Residents to Gehry Project: Put a Cork in It

Times Staff Writer

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.

Still, when the Halls submitted their plans to the Napa County Planning Commission earlier this summer, they expected little or no opposition. Under previous owners, the site had already been approved for a much larger expansion that would have allowed construction of 202 outdoor wine-storage tanks, including some 35 feet tall.

What the Halls were proposing was much more modest and subdued. In addition, they said they would make only one-third the wine and use one-third the water allowed under existing permits. Water is a big issue in the valley.

Moreover, they pledged to abide by current quotas that allow no more than 500 visitors a day and three special functions a week at the winery.

What the Halls did not anticipate, however, was the simmering frustration over traffic congestion. Traffic on the south side of St. Helena is often so heavy that local residents face long waits just to get onto the highway.

In its current, somewhat moribund state, the Hall winery attracts between 100 and 200 visitors a day, well below its quota. With the Gehry building as an attraction, the number of visitors is likely to increase.

"In our neighborhood we have 49 households, including 13 senior citizens and three new teenage drivers, who have a difficult time turning onto Highway 29," said Kelly Wheaton, 50, a leading opponent of the Hall project.

In addition to the Hall project, the same stretch of the highway has 12 other proposed additions or expansions. Wheaton and other residents have called for a moratorium on all new projects until a comprehensive traffic study can be completed.

In recent weeks, the county Planning Commission and St. Helena's Planning Commission and City Council have met to discuss the Gehry plan.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles-based architect declined to comment, but in an August interview with Wine Spectator Online, principal Gehry partner Edwin Chan said that the project would be "closer to the landscape than other projects" and that the firm would consult closely with local officials and neighbors before finalizing the plan.

Dividing his time between Napa and his Hall Financial Group headquarters near Dallas, Craig Hall said he hoped to resolve the issue in the next few weeks, even if it meant making compromises on the design.

If talks with neighbors and local officials fail, he said, one alternative would be to scrap the Gehry plan and go back to the larger, more utilitarian plan already approved.

"This is an odd position for us to be in," Craig Hall said. "We are usually on the other side."

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