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By Jan Siegel
San Juan Capistrano is blessed. Yes, we are a Mission town and we were literally blessed by St. Junipero Serra when he founded the Mission in 1776. Through the years, other prominent Catholic Church dignitaries have come to our town and blessed the community. The current Bishop of the Diocese of Orange, Kevin Vann, has come to San Juan Capistrano on several occasions, including the opening of the Mission Gift Shop and Mission Galas, and blessed our city. Bishop Vann has stated at these events how important the preservation of history is to San Juan Capistrano, Orange County and the Catholic Church.
Perhaps the Bishop’s words have not filtered down to other Diocese members that have direct knowledge of historical preservation projects in San Juan Capistrano.
The Oyharzabal barn site is owned by the Diocese of Orange. The property, which includes the Garcia Adobe, was willed to the Diocese by Eugenie Oyharzabal. All of the property was placed on the National Registry of Historic places in 1982. The barn has always been part of the property. Before being listed on the National Registry, the property was a part of the inventory of Historic Places in San Juan Capistrano.
The significance of this property to San Juan Capistrano is important at many different levels in our history. Manuel Garcia was known as El Portuguese because of his background. He built the two story, Monterey-style building around 1841. It is the best example of a Monterey style building still standing in Orange County. In 1857, the Juan Flores Gang terrorized San Juan Capistrano. A general store was on the first floor of the Garcia building and was raided by the Flores Gang. Flores fled the town following the raid and was eventually caught, but Garcia wanted no more of our town and left shortly after the raid. After changing hands several times over the years, the property was sold to Domingo Oyharzabal in 1880. The Oyharzabal family operated it as the French Hotel until 1903. The general store continued until 1918. It was called the French Hotel because the Oyharzabals were French Basques. The Basques are a major part of the story of San Juan Capistrano.
The Oyharzabals were the largest sheep herders in the valley and also owned thousands of acres of walnut and orange groves along with being a major employer in San Juan Capistrano. It was Esteban Oyharzabal, husband of Eugenie, who developed the first water works for the town center outside of the Mission water system. The water tank was a part of the Oyharzabal property on Camino Capistrano. The Yorba Adobe, which is next to the Garcia Adobe, has been the Oyharzabal home since the 1880s. Carmen Oyharzabal, Eugenie’s daughter, still lives in that house.
Storms were not kind to the barn. Wind and rain has seriously undermined the structural integrity. There is a phrase in architectural circles that talk about benign neglect. If you leave a structure alone and do nothing to improve or stabilize it, the structure will self destruct and then one can say “too bad, but it is gone.” The first storm to cause damage to the barn was in December 2013. It was not until January 2018 that the Diocese submitted a Structural Assessment to the city, stating that the structure was in such bad shape that restoration was not possible. The Diocese is recommending tearing the barn down. It would be a shame if the community lost this one last treasure of our agricultural past.
Experts gave the same assessment on the Silvas Adobe that the Historical Society has recently restored. Sometimes the experts just don’t want to put in the extra effort that is needed to preserve historic buildings, but once history is gone it cannot be restored. Our heritage deserves to be preserved.
You can spend a Moment In Time and see the Oyharzabal barn and Garcia Adobe at 31861 Camino Capistrano, or you can see the damage to the barn by looking at the backside of the structure on the Historical Society grounds on Los Rios Street. To show your concern, contact the city or the Diocese of Orange.
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.