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Historic downtown Napa post office envisioned as centerpiece for proposed hotel

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Sometime in the next five years, Jim Keller could walk into the lobby of the former downtown Napa post office, just like he did as a kid.

But what he walks into will be the lobby of a $100 million hotel he plans to build, a project that began when the Napa native got involved in an effort to save the 1930s art deco building from the wrecking ball.

Keller purchased the Napa landmark nearly three years ago for $2 million, promising new life for the historic post office building that was badly damaged in the 2014 South Napa earthquake. In November 2018, the Napa City Council and Keller entered into a development agreement to move forward with what will become the Franklin Station Hotel, located at 1351 Second St.

“We got pretty much the playbook and guidelines for the project approved with the development agreement,” Keller said, adding he wanted to get this particular project preapproved. The agreement became effective in February of this year. “I wanted to make sure they wanted the hotel project before I spent the money.”

This will be the veteran developer’s first hotel deal. Keller has built out his team for the project, adding Dallas-based Cypress Equities as his co-developer and San Francisco-based SB Architects to spearhead the architecture and design, along with a design team that includes more than a half-dozen companies that specialize in the hospitality industry.

Keller has filed an application with the city and is now in the process of design reviews, approvals and hearings, which he said will take months. If all goes as anticipated, Keller hopes to break ground next summer on the project, which he estimates will cost north of $100 million. Once construction begins, he’s looking at two to three years for the hotel to be completed.

Part of the approvals process includes reaching an agreement with the city and Napa County Landmarks to preserve as much of the original post office as possible. Napa County Landmarks is a nonprofit historic-preservation organization charged with carrying out federal standards on the local level that call for preserving historical buildings.

The Franklin Station Post Office was built in 1933, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 11, 1985. After it was severely damaged in the magnitude-6 earthquake, the United States Postal Service determined it would be cheaper to demolish the building for $500,000, rather than spend $8 million to $10 million to repair it.

Napa County Landmarks worked with the United States Postal Service and local politicians to save the old post office, according to Ernie Schlobohm, the organization’s board president.

“We started a hard-fought campaign with the people of Napa and were able to convince them not to demolish it,” Schlobohm said.

After the effort to save the structure was successful, another developer came forward.

“First Cakebread (Cellars) had it in contract and had some ideas and plans on how to turn it into a project,” Keller said. “I was excited when I heard that, but then that failed and no one really knew what the next steps were on how to do anything because (of) the price tag to restore it.”

So Keller started thinking about a better use for a project on that site.

“I’m sure there were a handful of people looking at it, but what I envisioned was some sort of use where the post office could be the focal point, turn it into a showpiece (and give it) what it deserves,” Keller said. “What better use than a hotel? It’s the only use where you could have a publicly accessible space for people to enjoy, and the only way to turn it into a hotel was to build around (the post office).”

For Keller, a third-generation Napa real estate agent and developer, the project is more than a business deal.

“Growing up, my grandparents and parents would frequent the post office (to pick up company mail) and that’s something I’d always do with them,” he said. “And then in the last decade I’ve been involved in the restoration of two older buildings in downtown Napa, so I know the downtown area really well and all the buildings.”

The two structures he owns and rehabbed are the Main Street Exchange building next to Napa Creek, and the Young building at Third and Coombs streets in downtown.

Keller’s initial design called for saving the decorative lobby of the old post office by turning it into a lobby lounge and bar, for both guests and the public. That piece of the plan remains, but now, according to Keller and Napa County Landmarks, negotiations are moving closer with the city toward preserving the entire building.

In a June report, the city’s planning division stated its preliminary review of the hotel project calls for “a hotel and parking garage design to convert the historic Franklin Station Post Office into a 5-story luxury hotel and to construct a 5- to 6-story automated parking garage, including ground-floor commercial space on the opposite side of Randolph Street.”

To accommodate the project, Keller also is purchasing an adjacent parking lot and land where Zeller’s Ace Hardware is located, at 819 Randolph St.

Keith Houchin, senior associate and senior designer at SB Architects, said late last month that the firm began its design approach with a question: How can we save as much of this building as possible and celebrate its existing details without trying to mimic or recreate its historic character?

“Through our initial analysis and design studies, there seemed to be a solution that embraced the post office, retaining the entirety of its massing while positioning the existing structure as if it were a jewel being put on display,” Houchin said.

Plans call for a 167,000-square-foot hotel with 156 rooms, comprised of a presidential suite, a couple of one-bedroom suites, and junior and executive suites, according to Houchin.

Plans also include 8,700 square feet of meeting space, a restaurant, a rooftop lounge and pool, and a boutique spa and fitness center.

The architects also plan to incorporate the art deco style of the original building.

As project approvals move forward, there will be multiple revisions to what ultimately becomes the Franklin Station Hotel, but there is one thing Keller is intent on.

“My vision is to build the greatest hotel in downtown Napa,” he said.

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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