A visit to the Napa Valley would not be complete without a drive along Silverado Trail and Highway 29. For wine lovers, this is the field of dreams: A multitude of award-winning wineries nestled in the picturesque Northern California mountains.
Napa is renowned for its wine, but a lesser-known fact is that it offers something for architecture lovers too. The Valley is rich in architectural diversity, from classic to modern design. While some of these gems are tucked away in private residences, there are some delightful finds that do welcome visitors.
Wander along Silverado Trail and you’ll discover a stunning interpretation of a Persian palace, reminiscent of Persepolis,the capital of ancient Persia. Darioush Winery pays homage to the roots of its Iranian-born founder and features 18-foot bull capital columns, medallions and entablature molding on the building. Venture further north to Rutherford to explore the gardens at Inglenook, with its long bubbling fountain and classic columns inspired by the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Another surprising fact is that many of these architectural details are homegrown, carved and manufactured by local artisans using locally sourced materials. Napa Valley Cast Stone has been designing and manufacturing high-end architectural features across the Valley for 25 years, from columns and balustrades, to pool copings and fireplace surrounds.
The company was founded on a beautifully romantic notion: To make classical architecture more affordable and accessible. Most of its designs are created using cast stone, a highly refined building material that captures the color, texture and appearance of natural cut stone. Molds are carved and manufactured in varying custom designs, which are then cast, stripped and cured. The resulting designs simulate an art form lost centuries ago when marble and granite were carved by hand.
The alchemy of design
Mark Akey has always been fascinated by the alchemy of blending materials to create something of beauty.
“What I love is to create something from nothing, to bring to life an idea that only existed in my mind,” he said. “I just believe in it until I can make it happen.”
It’s an approach that he’s applied to all aspects of his life, whether he’s cooking at home or building a company. A long-time Napa resident, Mark founded Napa Valley Cast Stone (NVCS) in 1991 from an idea in his mind, and a strong entrepreneurial sense. He had been creating decorative planters with a local artist and saw an opportunity to explore an untapped need in the market. His instincts were right. Today, cast stone is used around the world for architectural trim and ornamentation on buildings and landscaping, and not just commercially but in homes too.
“When I started the business, there was a movement in the building industry to recapture the romance of classic architecture,” said Mark. “I realized that if NVCS could make classic building materials available at a reasonable price, more people could enjoy this beautiful architecture.”
Today, Mark and business partners, Jeff Latreille and Jody Hansen, run a business that stretches across the US and Western Canada. Their factory in American Canyon houses their molds, and batching and manufacturing machinery and systems.
“When we outgrew our old Napa Basalt property in 2006, we needed a location that would grow with us,” said Mark. American Canyon presented itself at the perfect time. “The city was receptive to new commercial ventures and it offered a huge advantage of being next door to Napa.”
The proximity to Napa was good not just for personal reasons (Mark raised his kids in the city), it also allowed NVCS to stay connected with developments and to continue influencing the city’s design landscape. Over the years, the company has contributed to architectural work all over the Valley, from its wine country to its downtown retail space, including the historic Hatt Building and Napa Square on First Street.
Mark and his team have collaborated with award-winning local designers and architects too, such as Jack Chandler, Thomas Bartlett and the late Richard Tam and Robert Keenan. Mark said he has drawn enormous inspiration from those collaborations. In fact, he finds creative inspiration in many places, from ancient Greek architecture to the modernist design philosophy of Bauhaus and the colorful work of Luis Barragán.
Upside of challenge
But even with an abundance of inspiration, achieving success has not been easy. The 2008 economic recession dealt a sharp blow to the building industry. The company weathered that storm only through hard work and a shared belief in their business.
“I have always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, but the recession definitely tested our perseverance,” said Mark. “The upside
of a challenge is that it shows you what you’re made of. The whole NVCS family pulled together in the most remarkable ways.”
After years of drought, the US building industry is now on the rise again. Commercial and residential projects are steadily increasing. Mark said he’s now seeing a trend towards clean lines and ruggedly modern design. NVCS is introducing new architectural cast stone products and designs to reflect these trends, including its new Stone Transitions product line, which will expand the company’s reach.
“The Napa Valley is continuously growing in new dimensions. That’s what makes our work so dynamic. We never know what’s just around the corner,” he said.
By Rosanne L. Bananno, Photos by Art & Clarity/Janna Waldinge