Mud City Weekender, August 2018
By Eden Umble – Special to the Mud City Weekender
Welcome back, dame Francis
A mystery. A grande dame of a house. An architectural unicorn. A small town hospital. An eyesore. The Francis House has been all of these.
This month, the 1886 National Register of Historic Places landmark starts a new chapter, as a small luxury inn that’s also the home of Richard & Dina Dwyer. After three years of painstaking restoration, the Dwyers are opening the doors to this legendary property steeped in Napa Valley lore.
Most incredible, this happy ending almost didn’t happen. After 53 years boarded up and neglected, The Francis House – like a damsel tied to the tracks with the locomotive bearing down – was in desperate need of a last-minute rescue. (Had the Dwyers not started reconstruction in winter 2015, the building was six weeks from demolition.)
Originally the home of local merchant James H. Francis, the house is the only stone building in Napa County authentic in French Second Empire architecture. Calling to mind a French maison particulier plunked down a few blocks from Calistoga’s bustling main street, the house’s stylish details include tall arched windows and butter-colored handcarved limestone blocks, capped by an elegant hat of a mansard roof, with dormer windows peeking out from the third floor. No one who’s seen it in person can ever forget it.
Fast forward to 1919, when the Francis House was converted to the Calistoga Hospital. One change made to the building’s exterior, which sits angled on its large corner lot, was a covered portico to accommodate arriving ambulances. Operating as a community hospital until 1964 anchored its affectionate mystique with Calistoga residents; there are many former hospital babies still living in town, each with their own story. (Postal carrier Nick Triglia jokes that he was “the last good-looking baby born at the hospital.”)
Closed by the state in 1964, The Francis House endured a lonely half-century of increasing uncertainty. Changes of ownership, natural disasters and the passing of time all contributed to its decrepitude. Despite the deterioration, its unique architecture and age led it its National Register status in 1979. Periodic plans to renovate it came and went nowhere over the years.
Enter Richard & Dina Dwyer. The San Francisco-based couple – he’s a real estate broker & general contractor, she’s an interior designer – had fallen in love with the valley and were searching for the perfect property to call home when Dina happened to find The Francis House online. It took hold of them immediately; while undeniably shabby, the building was still proud, with noble features. Having restored and remodeled their primary home, a 1906 San Francisco Victorian, they couldn’t be better suited to this daunting task. Dina says, “The design and uniqueness of the property really appealed to us. We always see beyond the surface to the potential within. The challenge didn’t faze us, but if we weren’t in the business, we wouldn’t know where to begin.”
Which is not to say this was easy. Bringing The Francis House back to life involved first removing its mansard roof; engineering a metal & concrete superstructure to support the entire building and satisfy seismic retrofit requirements; regrouting the stone blocks inside and out; gutting the badly damaged three story interior and starting over. Richard Dwyer describes the challenges they faced as “all the degrees of construction and then some: historic restoration, retrofit, remodel, new construction. It was a constant puzzle. We were always weighing between preserving the past while making it viable for what it would become, as our home and a unique luxury inn.” And then the real work really began.
A thousand decisions followed, each one a deliberate choice, along with fierce determination and dedication by the Dwyers and their crew. There’s a decidedly French flavor to Dina’s design inside and out. Each of the five guest rooms has its own distinct character, with custom leather headboards and rich touches of marble and brass in each private bathroom. Dina says, “The idea was that you can have a most memorable time without ever leaving the property.” The grounds surprise at every turn. A limestone fountain with spouting frogs greets guests as they arrive; an enclosed patio garden beckons with stone fire pit and herb gardens. Fragrant jasmine and espaliered hedges surround the lap pool where guests cool off on hot days, and an infrared sauna & salt room will melt any remaining tension. A cozy living room salon invites reading by the fireplace salvaged from the Peyton Place house, and there’s an informal dining area where a tasty daily breakfast is inspired by herbs from the garden.
The end results have exceeded everyone’s expectations. Architectural Digest has named The Francis House among the 15 best-designed hotels in the world opening this summer (and the only California property included). Just this week, the Dwyers and their structural engineers learned they’d received a 2018 California Preservation Award for Rehabilitation.
You have to think that somewhere, James H. Francis must be smiling.
The Francis House
1403 Myrtle St. Calistoga CA 94515