Guest opinion by Jan Siegel
When you live in a historic town, every year is significant and an anniversary of some event that took place within the community. 2023, though, has a number of major events that happened 40 or more years ago and still impact our community today.
One of the reasons for the incorporation of San Juan Capistrano as an independent city in 1961 was that a number of local residents were concerned about the loss of our local history if San Clemente tried to annex this community. It took a while but in 1978 the first Los Rios Street Specific Plan was adopted. Without this Plan, the area would have been redeveloped with commercial and industrial uses.
The nomination application to place the historic district area on the National Registry of Historic places was submitted to the state in 1976 by local historian Ilse Byrnes. Ilse recognized that Los Rios Street, as the oldest residential neighborhood in California, was worth preserving. The Street was finally placed on the National Registry in 1983. This is the 40th anniversary of historic recognition for Los Rios Street. It is also the purpose of the Cultural Heritage Commission, created by the City Council, to ensure that the architecture and history be protected and preserved.
The buildings within the Historic District span over 200 years. Built in 1794, the Montanez, Silvas and Rios adobes, three of the original adobes from the Mission era, are on the street. The Rios Adobe has the additional distinction of being the oldest house in California with the same family living in it. Ten generations of Rios have resided in the adobe. The first Rios was a lieutenant attached to the Mission.
Native Americans built both the Rios and Montanez houses. Polonia Montanez was the first recorded deed holder of the adobe in 1850. She was midwife in the village and in charge of children’s religious education when no priest was at the Mission. The City acquired the property in the 1970s and began restoration in 1980.
Single-wall construction of wooden frame houses from the late 1800s and early 20th century vernacular and craftsman-style homes adorn the street. Some of the homes have been moved into or adjacent to the Historic District but the majority of the homes are original to the area.
The Los Rios Historic District is a unique area in the busy downtown of San Juan Capistrano. The residential neighborhood enjoys specialty shops and restaurants.
The Historical Society, Friends of the Library and the Blas Aguilar Adobe offer tours through the historic area. For further information, contact their web pages.
Spend a Moment In Time and stroll down Los Rios Street and enjoy the ambiance and the history that San Juan Capistrano has experienced for over 200 years and 40 years of recognition on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. 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.