By Craig Smith, The Napa Valley Register
Edward Churchill and his wife, Mary, moved to Napa from Rochester, N.Y., in 1878, when he became the cashier of the James H. Goodman Bank (later sold to the Bank of Italy), which in 1930 became the Bank of America. He and Mary built the Churchill Manor in 1889 on Brown Street (then named Grant Street), considered to be the original street of the Napa founders. Neighboring mansions included one owned by George Goodman of the Goodman Library on First Street, and the Manasse Mansion, built by an executive of the Sawyer Tannery. At nearly 10,000 square feet, Churchill Manor was reputedly the largest home in the Napa Valley at the time. After finishing it, Churchill built what is now known as Cedar Gables, which he presented to his son as a wedding gift in 1891.
Times were good for these early aristocrats. The Napa River was an active steamship route, and San Franciscans would sail up the Napa River to attend large parties at the Churchill Manor. Churchill also owned the Golden Ribbon Beer Company and the Tokalon Vineyard near Rutherford. He died suddenly in 1903, when, in a flu-induced delirious state, he mistakenly drank from a bottle of carbolic acid. His wife and daughter continued to live at the Manor and later his granddaughter, Dorothy, lived there.
It is rumored that the family suffered financially during the Depression and Prohibition. In any case, Dorothy began to take on boarders. Most of these were teachers, who by all accounts lived a rather “Bohemian” lifestyle. She began to rent the beautiful mansion out for large weddings. The residence left the Churchill family in 1956. The next several tenants included the Napa State hospital, a commune and a group of male college students who earned rent by hosting weddings there.
The Mansion, however, was falling apart, and plans were made to tear it down for apartments. Horrified preservationists went to work to save it, and the Churchill Manor became the first Napa residence to be placed on the National Registry.
A Hawaiian couple bought the Mansion in the 1980s, intending to refurbish it for use as a bed and breakfast inn. By that point, the neighborhood had fallen from its former glory and was considered to be a bad part of town. The project was more than the couple could handle and they threw in the towel in 1987. A picture of the residence with the caption “Want to own a mansion?” was run in the real estate section of the Napa Valley Register.
About this time, Brian Jensen, an engineer and contractor from Montana, had been living and working on the Peninsula. He had done some remodeling work for Joanna Guidotti, then a vice president and tax attorney with Bank of America, and the two had started dating. Although he liked many things about the Bay Area, Jensen was homesick for the kind of community spirit he’d known in Montana. He loaded his pickup truck and drove from city to city looking for it. He found it in Napa and invited Guidotti to join him here. The two were having breakfast one morning when Guidotti saw the ad for the Mansion in the Register. They drove by to check it out, made an offer on it, and moved in on New Year’s Eve in 1987.
Although the museum quality redwood interiors fortunately had not been damaged, the place was in bad shape. Part of the floor on the second story bowed over six inches. It rained inside the sunroom as much as it did outside. The two set to work and within a month had their first room ready for rent, which they offered for $75 a night. By spring the following year, weddings were again being held on the grounds. A few years later, Jensen tried his hand in the kitchen, hoping to reduce some of the catering costs. Today, couples book there in part because of his skills as a chef, and guests report that they use his recipes, such as Flambeed Amaretto Shrimp, in kitchens all over the country.
Thanks to their hard work, the home has been restored and is one of the most beautiful architectural treasures in Napa. Every room is a work of art. By their count, Jensen and Guidotti have hosted 1,000 weddings that 100,000 people from all over the world have attended, and Guidotti has coordinated all of them. The two owners now maintain a nearby residence with their sons, Adam and Erik. They credit their staff, most of whom have been there for over 10 years, with much of their success. Impacted like everyone else by 9/11, the bed and breakfast has fully rebounded. Over the years, Churchill Manor has been recognized in virtually every “best of” lodging guidebook in the country.
The two owners now maintain a nearby residence with their sons, aged 10 and 7. Guidotti said that she and Jensen are as different as night and day, but are united by their passion and sense of humor. Everything they do in and to the house has to hold up to a litmus test of being functional, pristine and preserving antiquity. Although both are intense about their work, they are warm, caring and easy conversationalists: the perfect hosts for a bed and breakfast.
It’s been a lot of work for the two. Asked about the future, Guidotti beams, “We’ve spent the first 25 years rebuilding the Mansion. The next 25 we’ll spend enjoying it.”
See you downtown.