A Church, A Villa, And A Castle

The Little Church at Italian Swiss Colony, Asti.

The Little Church At Italian Swiss Colony, Asti.

Officially, Madonna del Carmine, or El Carmelo to the parishioners, the chapel was dedicated in 1909. Before this blessed day, the devoutly Catholic Asti community attended church in Cloverdale until 1893 and then fourteen years in the Asti schoolhouse. Winemaker Pietro Rossi, their beloved leader, and CEO of ISC, promised them they would have a church. In 1908, work was begun on his plan to remodel the old, unused greenhouse on the property. It was founder Andrea Sbarboro who urged the new church be called Madonna del Carmine, the name of the room where he recently stayed while visiting the ancient hillside St Domenico Monastery in Italy.

Luther Burbank Home and Garden, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Luther Burbank Home And Garden, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Asti historian Jack Florence writes in his Legacy of a Village that the old ISC greenhouse had been inspired by renowned horticulturist Luther Burbank’s Santa Rosa greenhouse built in the 1870s. This lovely 1960s postcard shows Burbank’s Victorian home, a section of his garden and the 19th century glass-paneled greenhouse. (Which, by the way, survived the 1906 earthquake when much of Santa Rosa was destroyed.)

Church Shaped Like a Wine Barrel, Asti, c1930s.

Church Shaped Like A Wine Barrel, Asti, c1930s.

During its 50+ years of service, postcards of the little church in the vineyard were extremely popular, with millions sent around the world. The distinctive shape of the church suggested a wine barrel to tourists, and it became popularly known as “Church Shaped like a Wine Barrel.” Some visitors even wrote home that the little chapel was made from a barrel. In reality, but not nearly as poetic, we have learned that the church’s beautiful curved sides and roof merely reflect its origin as a greenhouse.

Interior of Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church, Asti, c1940.

Interior Of Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church, Asti, c1940.

It continues to astonish me! Gathered over a 50-year period, my collection has just over 200 ISC postcards, with some 30 different cards of El Carmelo, and this is the only postcard view of the Church interior ever seen. It is a jewel taken by James Piggott, a celebrated Santa Rosa and S.F. postcard photographer. The beautiful circular stained glass window over the altar was lovingly donated for the new church by the Rossi family. Historian Florence notes, “tens of thousands of visitors took photographs of the little church at Asti. With the exception of St Peter’s in Rome, El Carmelo possibly one day would be the most photographed church in the world.” In the middle of a vineyard. Note: Unlike St Peter’s, the little made-over greenhouse began to crumble in the 1940s, and more so in the ‘50s. By December 1960, a new, larger, but similar, church was built a few yards away.

Villa Pompeii, Summer House of Andrea Sbarboro, Asti.

Villa Pompeii, Summer House Of Andrea Sbarboro, Asti.

The Villa sits next to the Russian River away from the winery complex, down a palm-lined avenue leading through a section of vineyard. Sbarboro, a Genoa-born Italian who came to S.F. in 1852, was the guiding force behind the founding of ISC in 1881 and one of the most influential leaders of California’s pre-Prohibition wine industry. His fellow wine men and visiting dignitaries were always welcome at Villa Pompeii, his showplace summer home built in 1902 as an exact replica of the 2,000-year-old Casa dei Vetti in Pompeii. Sbarboro was a generous host. Tales of wonderment abound — bounteous picnics beneath the huge grape arbor in the Villa’s “backyard” — a hundred or more guests all seated at a long table laden with dishes made from fresh garden produce, wild game from the hills, and fish from the river … with endless bottles of ISC wine. And bocce ball. And scattered about were a number of architecturally mastered, often whimsical, river-rock structures — amusements really — including a refreshing grotto and a meditation chamber that cleverly sprayed unsuspecting guests with a burst of cool water. (It should be noted that Villa Pompeii was not included in the winery’s tours.)

“Castle of Little Stones” behind the Villa Pompeii, 1918.

“Castle Of Little Stones” Behind The Villa Pompeii, 1918.

This photo postcard has no caption. The image shows a stone “castle” with parapets and turrets, a foreground grapevine-covered pergola, a crushed gravel pathway, and a debonaire A. Sbarboro? in a 3-piece suit, hat in hand, admiring the scene. The card, postmarked Cloverdale 1918, is addressed to “Mrs L. Vasconi, St Helena, Cal. — from Mrs. L.G. Clark.” Written beneath in pencil: “Returned to me by Mrs. Mario Vasconi upon the death of Mrs. L. Vasconi on July 5, 1953.” This is the only message on the card. What exhilarating fun to research and discover the hidden story of this fascinating, deliciously rare postcard that had to be Italian-Swiss Colony! The name Vasconi was the key to the “castle.” In a nutshell: The Clarks and Vasconis were pioneer families of St Helena, and life-long friends. Clark became V.P. of Sbarboro’s Bank of Italy in St Helena and Vasconi had been hired by Sbarboro as the first Superintendent of ISC. With Vasconi’s unexpected death in early 1900, Mrs. Vasconi returned to St Helena with her three young sons to live. It is easy to imagine the Clarks being invited to weekend gatherings at Asti by Mr Sbarboro. It is just as easy to see him presenting Mrs Clark with this postcard to send to Mrs Vasconi in kind remembrance and in excitement over his newly completed Villa Pompeii and its fantastic array of “little fun-houses.” Yet the “castle” photo was unknown in Asti archives. A magical trip to Asti and a visit with G-M Jeff Collins (who grew up at Asti) unlocked the “castle” door. Jeff immediately verified the scene with “Let’s go see it!” We stood where Andrea Sbarboro proudly stood that day — next to the “Bagno” (restrooms), as it is clearly lettered in little white stones on an unseen side of the building in the picture; on another wall is “A. S.” in slightly larger, white stones. Sbarboro had built this “comfort station” behind his home for his many weekend guests who attended his frequent summertime “picnics”! Among the awesome wonders of ISC wine lore, this is one of the best!