Celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Leck House

Historical Society member Diane Lewis, a retired textile professor from Saddleback College, stands with longtime resident and Historical Society member Jan Siegel in the Leck House. In May 2016, the house was home to an exhibit titled, “The Ladies of Historic San Juan Capistrano,” which showcased intricately stitched clothing and artifacts from historic San Juan families. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Historical Society member Diane Lewis, a retired textile professor from Saddleback College, stands with longtime resident and Historical Society member Jan Siegel in the Leck House. In May 2016, the house was home to an exhibit titled, “The Ladies of Historic San Juan Capistrano,” which showcased intricately stitched clothing and artifacts from historic San Juan families. Photo: Allison Jarrell

By Jan Siegel

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Arley Leck House. The story of this house is important to the history of San Juan Capistrano.

Arley Leck was raised in Tustin, California, where he became a grain and bean farmer. His father, Jasper Leck, was a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors from 1911-1915. Arley bought 290 acres on the east side of San Juan Capistrano that bordered Ortega Highway. The land consisted of mostly hills that were ideal for cattle grazing, which was Leck’s latest endeavor.

While in San Juan Capistrano, Leck met and married Frank Forster’s eldest daughter, Alicia, better known to family and friends as Alice. Frank Forster had recently built the mansion on the other side of Ortega Highway, but owned land abutting the Leck property. Mrs. Leck is the great-granddaughter of Don Juan Forster. As a wedding gift, her parents gave the newlyweds additional acreage across from their home for the Lecks’ California bungalow-style home.

The Leck property now included 354 acres, so beyond ranching, they could grow citrus and avocados. In the “History of Orange County California,” Mrs. J. E. Pleasants wrote in 1941, “the Leck property is attractively located on high land, commanding a magnificent view of the surrounding country and the Pacific Ocean. The Lecks live in a beautiful home with all modern conveniences and he is very comfortably situated.” From 1948-1955, Arley Leck was employed as the manager of Rancho Mission Viejo.

Arley Leck died in 1956, and his wife continued to live in the house on the property until her death in 1975. The Lecks had no children.

The city of San Juan Capistrano decided to identify homes and buildings that had historic interest or had unique architectural designs, and since the Leck house is one of the few Craftsman bungalows in the city and shares history with the Forster family, the house was placed on the city’s “Building of Distinction” list.

Following WWII, the original 290 acres of the Leck property was sold, and in the 1980s it became part of what is known today as the Hunt Club. After Mrs. Leck died, the property on which the Leck house stood was bought by the Romarco Realty Corporation. The Lyon Company then acquired the property and wanted to build estate homes on the land.

The Leck House was in the way and was either going to be moved or destroyed. Thankfully, the city opted to move the house because of its historical value to the community.

According to local historian Don Tryon, “when Tony Forster, president of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, found out that Lyon Company planned to develop the parcel of land and that the Leck house would be affected, he contacted them with a suggestion. It was Tony’s Aunt Alice who had married Arley Leck. So his interest was two-fold—preserve a family house and obtain it for the Historical Society. He told them that the society had a piece of land where this house could be moved if city approval could be obtained. Lyon was so elated with the suggestion that they offered to not only move the house, but to set it on a foundation, and completely rehabilitate it at no cost to the society.”

Getting approval from the city took some time, but finally it was agreed that moving the house was better than destroying the property. On May 5, 2005 at 12:30 a.m., the Arley Leck House was moved to the Historical Society property on Los Rios Street. The house had to be cut into three sections in order to move it across town, down River Street, across the Ito Nursery property and onto its new site behind the Silvas Adobe. It took two hours to move the house through the streets and another three hours to set the house down on its new home. Today, the house is the exhibition room for the Historical Society.

You can spend a “Moment in Time” and see this historic structure on the grounds of the O’Neill Museum. Starting in February, there will be a six-month exhibit on the history of the Leck House and the history of farming in the Capistrano Valley.

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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