On H Street, tucked beside the iconic Teak Man shop and behind the Capitol Building, is a window into Benicia’s past.
You’ve likely walked or driven past this landmark many times, not knowing what lay within. The building in question once was the site of the old California House hotel, built in 1850, and adjacent to the long defunct Benicia Brewery. While the original building burned down in the 1945 fire that nearly also claimed the Capitol Building, a cinder block structure was built in its place, which eventually became a bar called The Brewery, and the restaurant Tia Teresa’s. Yes, it’s the same building that opens the classic music video for Bon Jovi’s “She Don’t Know Me” (1984).
The building is now a private residence and art studio belonging to local and renowned artists, Linda Fleming and Michael S. Moore, who discovered the unique space for sale about twenty years ago when they were looking for a new live/work space away from their home, at the time, in San Francisco. What they discovered inside moved them to make an offer in short order. All along the tall walls of the interior were murals depicting Benicia’s history, from the first settlers interacting with indigenous people to the famed boxing match on a barge in the straits, and beyond. According to a signature on one of the first panels, the 154 feet of incredible murals were painted by Les Vandré and were completed in 1946.
Vandré is said to have been a sign painter on Mare Island during the war.
Allegedly, he painted the murals in lieu of paying an extended bar tab he had racked up at The Brewery. His sign-painting skill is evident in some of the earliest murals, as he included expertly scripted captions to describe what was being depicted in each vignette. The murals tell a chronological story of Benicia, culminating in a dance hall scene over what used to be the bar. The individuals depicted in the scenes pay homage to both well-known historical figures, such as Robert Semple and Jack London, and contemporary townsfolk, including the owners of The Brewery and other such common faces to the establishment.
Although it was not a stipulation of the sale of the building, Fleming and Moore’s primary concern was the preservation of the murals. “It was completely vulnerable,” says Moore, “we could have done whatever we wanted with the space.” So, he and Fleming reached out to the Conservator of Paintings from the Oakland Museum to find out how to clean and preserve the murals. “The walls were covered in tobacco and beer drippings,” says Fleming. Oddly enough, they were told that the tobacco coating was actually doing a nice job of preserving the murals and that they should be left untouched.
Unfortunately, however, some restoration had to be done to the bottom portion of a number of the murals.
When word got around to the patrons of The Brewery that their beloved bar was closing up shop and being sold, a number of the patrons scrawled their signatures in permanent marker across the art, wherever they could reach, to commemorate their time there. “We told the realtor that if the murals had been destroyed, that was a deal breaker,” says Fleming. And so, they arranged for partial restoration with paint to match the original art as closely as possible.
With the mural restoration complete, Fleming and Moore set about making the space their home. They’ve kept much of the original structure intact and only changed what was necessary. This included replacing some of the flooring due to rot from years of overflow from leaky sinks and beer taps. They tore down some walls and installed others to partition off the space into his and hers studios, and to open up storage space for their archive of work. A large door was cut into the back of the building to allow for the passage of Fleming’s large sculptural works.
All renovations were done with careful attention to the accessibility of the murals.
They closed off the back of the property, which had been an asphalt parking lot, and created a true backyard for themselves and their dogs to enjoy. Fleming, a retired professor, called upon the help of some eager graduate students, as well as hired hands through Adobe, to assist in the renovation process. “It was kind of a white elephant,” Fleming says of the building, “No one knew what to do with it, and probably no one but us thought to live in it!”
Fleming and Moore split their time between their home in Benicia, and their other properties in Nevada and Colorado, one of which houses a sculpture garden containing Fleming’s past works. One of her iconic sculptures, “Doña Benicia’s Mantilla,” can be found here in Benicia, toward the end of First Street, in the courtyard by Estey Realty. Her work has otherwise been recently commissioned by Facebook’s VR campus in Burlingame. Miniature models, sketches, and prototypes of her projects line the shelves of her creative workshop within the old cinder block building on H Street. Read more about Linda Fleming and her work on her website, lindaflemingsculpture.com.
Moore is a painter whose work was most recently featured in Benicia last year at the Marilyn Citron O’Rourke Gallery at the Benicia Public Library in a one-person show entitled “Further Afield.” You can read more about his work and process in the Benicia Magazine article that covered this exhibit in March of 2020, or by visiting his website, mikesmooreptgs.com.
Fleming and Moore both value their privacy and have asked that no solicitations be made to view the murals in their home. Instead, please enjoy the photo spread within the magazine and more photos on our gallery.