Images raise questions regarding historic view from Egan House’s dormer window

The Egan House was initially built without dormer windows, as seen in this photo circa 1885. Photo: Courtesy of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society
The Egan House was initially built without dormer windows, as seen in this photo circa 1885. Photo: Courtesy of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society

By Jan Siegel

The Judge Egan House—a historic landmark that sits along Camino Capistrano and is currently home to Ellie’s Table—has landed in the middle of a historical disagreement between two hotel developers in town, the crux of which is whether or not Judge Richard Egan built himself a dormer window in order to enjoy a view of the Mission.

A boutique hotel—the Hotel Capistrano by Kimpton—is set to be built on land owned by Steve Oedekerk, which sits adjacent to the Egan House. That project received city approval back in September 2016. Local developer Bill Griffith owns the Egan House and also plans on building a hotel across from the Mission. Griffith claims that the Kimpton hotel approval was illegal—he argues that the project doesn’t adhere to the city’s Historic Town Center Master Plan and would block the dormer window view of the Egan House, which Griffith has stated was built to have a “commanding view of the Mission.” Griffith is currently suing the city over the approval of the project adjacent to his property.

The Egan House was recently placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, so any changes affecting the Egan House are historically important.

Following a ceremony in February celebrating the Egan House’s historic designation, Griffith was quoted in the Orange County Register saying: “In building and designing this house, Judge Egan gave himself a commanding view of the mission from the upper floor through the dormer window.” It’s a message he has continually propagated at City Council and Planning Commission meetings.

However, photographs of the period do not support this statement. The Egan House was built in 1883 and had no dormer windows. It also was street level, so even the upstairs would not have had a view looking as far away as the Mission. Besides numerous bushes and trees, there was also a brick wall that went along the side of the house. It was topped with ornamental pineapples, which was the Victorian sign for hospitality. In Victorian times, sailing captains would put a pineapple on their porch to indicate that they were back from their voyage and that one could visit. Judge Egan called his house Harmony Hall, and he was known for hosting grand parties and concerts.

Unfortunately, the Egan House caught fire in 1897, and the entire upstairs burned down. All of Egan’s artifacts and papers were lost. Egan rebuilt the upstairs of the house a year later. This was during a period that dormer windows were becoming very popular in attics and upper stories for ventilation. The dormer window added a pleasing architectural look as well as the practicality of letting in cooling breezes and fresh air.

Egan added dormer windows in the front and side of the upper story of the house when he rebuilt after the fire. But the window would not have offered any views of the Mission—photographs show there were bushes, trees and signs from neighboring businesses in the way.

The construction of a hotel adjacent to the Egan House would not destroy a historic view of the Mission, because it seems there never was one. And there are many historic photos to prove that.

Fortunately, the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society has over 15,000 pictures from the earliest days of photography to present day. In these pictures, you can see what San Juan Capistrano has looked like since early statehood in 1850. Residents can look up pictures from our community’s past on the society’s website or during a visit to the O’Neill Museum.

The Historical Society’s motto of “remembering our past insures our future” is even more important in the modern era.

Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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