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Napan restores new life to 100-year-old home

Author: KATHLEEN DREESSEN, Register Correspondent
Source: The Napa Valley Register
Time: Saturday, December 31, 2005

Napan John Reaksecker may be a general contractor, but he's really more of a specialist. "About 95 percent of the work I've done has been in Old Town Napa, most within three or four blocks of each other," said Reaksecker, owner of JFR Construction Company. He has renovated about a dozen of his own homes.

While he usually buys an old house, renovates and sells it, his most recent project has him second-guessing the part about selling. He is nearing completion of one of the most recognizable houses in Napa at 447 Randolph St., an Italian Renaissance built in 1905. It's had several notable owners and two world-famous occupants, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

"It's been a pleasure to work on this house," said Reaksecker, who has lived in Napa for 50 years. "Usually I start on the inside, but here I worked on the outside first."

Matching the color of the original stucco uncovered when overgrown bushes were removed, Reaksecker re-stuccoed the house in a soft cream shade. He built a matching low stucco wall, laid flagstone on the drive and walkways, added a large, circular custom-designed deck to the back and installed his signature flagpole in the front yard.

"Although we found the original outside trim was painted dark green, I repainted it in black, repaired soffits and removed, restored and reinstalled corbels," said Reaksecker. The result is stunning. It's a far cry from a house that had fallen into disrepair in recent years, with water stains running down the front of the house like tears. On the second floor, these formerly unsightly areas now pop with red geraniums in flower boxes. Reaksecker replaced the sagging wooden steps with flagstone. In the rear, the garage got a facelift of paint and a covered veranda.

The interior, including the high, coffered ceilings, has been completely repainted in an ivory color. Beveled glass inserts replaced the dark wooden pocket doors in the foyer. The kitchen is undergoing a major remodel that will retain key period features while updating appliances and flooring. The intricately designed wood floors throughout the house have been sanded. French doors brighten the rooms and allow visitors to see from the front of the house to the mature landscaping of the back yard.

Noted architect Luther Turton designed the house for L.J. Norton, president of Sawyer Tanning Company, then one of the largest employers in the county. It has gone through eight additional ownerships since, most notably to the Grossman family, who in the summer of 1939 loaned the house to two hugely popular film stars, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, while she made the movie "They Knew What They Wanted" with Charles Laughton. Grossman was the owner of Albert's department store on First Street in Napa.

For a Napa Register article in 2004, the Grossman's daughter Roslyn Grossman Morris, wife of retired retailer Mervin Morris, founder of Mervyn's Department Store, reminisced about the time the movie stars came to town. "My father owned the Plaza Hotel, across from the courthouse," said Morris. "Carole Lombard didn't want to stay in a hotel. My father offered them our home." Morris said she had fond memories of living in the house.

"I've been getting rave reviews from the neighbors," said Reaksecker, "They stop by and tell me what they like, and what they don't like." When one long-time neighbor told him she didn't care for the fountain he'd planned to install in the front yard, he moved it around to the side.

Over the past 100 years, five major renovations have taken place, according to research done by Reaksecker, who has copied the information and hands it out to curious passersby. Turton designed the first change, adding a sleeping porch and a bath with tub and toilet upstairs. A second upstairs bath was added later and the rear bath enlarged.

The third change came during the period the Grossmans lived in the house during the 1930s. They eliminated a room to enlarge the living room, took out a shallow bay window and replaced the living room fireplace. In the dining room, wainscoting, a china cabinet and a pass-through from the kitchen were removed.

When the French family bought the home in 1947, an additional major renovation occurred. The French's son, Perry French, described the work to the Napa Register in 2004. "My father was an architect," said French. "When we moved in, he was horrified (by the interior)." French tore out the kitchen and re-paneled the room in a new product called plywood. He also extended the stairway and floored the attic. French divided his time between San Francisco and the Randolph Street home until his death earlier this year.

Reaksecker removed the varnished plywood sheets from the kitchen walls. "They really held up," said Reaksecker, who will retain one area of the plywood wall. "It's the ironing board door," he said, opening the door for the fold-down ironing board. "I've never seen this feature before." He tugged a second handle to reveal a storage space behind the ironing board.

An upstairs bathroom in mint condition is another place in the house he'll leave as is. It's the 1930s era master bathroom that was in place when the famous film stars came to town. Arguably the most colorful room in the house, the walls are covered in yellow and black ceramic tiles and the porcelain fixtures--sink, tub and commode--are a dazzling fuchsia. "It really looks like a movie star bathroom, doesn't it?" commented Reaksecker.

Laurie and Randy Principe of A & N Estate Sales conducted the estate sale for the house. "I was so excited to get this job," said Laurie Principe. "It was amazing what you could learn. They were a very nice family and knew the history of everything in the house. There were a lot of clocks and political memorabilia from the 50s. It was fascinating stuff. People flipped out when they learned that this is the house where Carole Lombard and Clark Gable stayed."

She has nothing but praise for the renovation. "John is a great person and has a vision of what he wants. Anyone who's seen the house before knows what a good job he's done. He's got a gift. He also bought much of the original furniture and is restoring it to make the home as close as possible to the way it once was."

As the home nears completion, Reaksecker has a difficult decision to make. "I originally bought this house thinking I'd make it my home, but I'm single with three dogs. This is a big house." For now, he's postponed his decision of whether or not to sell until after the first of the year. Meanwhile, he put up a Christmas tree and is scheduling an open house for the neighbors to celebrate the house and its unique history.

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