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Then & Now: By Rhonda deHaan
Then & Now: By Rhonda deHaan

By Rhonda deHaan

Welcome to a new column where we celebrate San Juan Capistrano and its history through images past and present. I believe that this town is special, and its unique historic character is something to be cherished. But before I get settled on my soapbox, let’s move on.

Our first peek at the past is of our beloved Los Rios Historic District—the oldest residential neighborhood in the state of California. Buildings here date as far back as 1794, as construction of the original homes was closely tied to the establishment of the Mission.

The Los Rios Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places due to the tenacious efforts of local historian and preservationist Ilse Byrnes. After the loss of numerous San Juan Capistrano landmarks, it became apparent that steps had to be taken to help save those remaining, and it’s Ilse who has led the way.

Los Rios has a story to share, and many who want to hear it. There is a sense of tradition, of place, that continues to attract visitors to this charming and vibrant neighborhood year after year.

Walking through the area, you can almost feel the passage of time. Each small home reflects an era of our town’s history and is a tangible connection to the past—adobes from the Mission era, board-and-batten houses constructed during the building boom spurred by the coming of the railroad in the late 19th century, and a variety of other houses built during the 1900s as the town continued to grow.

The Rios Adobe has been cared for by the Rios family for more than 200 years. Photo: Allison Jarrell
The Rios Adobe has been cared for by the Rios family for more than 200 years. Photo: Allison Jarrell

Only three of the district’s original adobe homes have survived the passage of time: the Montanez, the Silvas, and the Rios. The Rios Adobe is the oldest continuously occupied residence in California. It was first occupied by Feliciano Rios, a Mission soldier who arrived with Junípero Serra in 1776. After marrying, he was given permission to build the adobe in 1794. Ten generations of Feliciano’s descendants have lived here, and it is currently home to Stephen Rios and his family.

The past and present photos here show the Rios Adobe, which has been lovingly cared for by the Rios family for more than 200 years. Preservation efforts have protected this structure and its Los Rios neighbors, and allow us to experience these places today.

Rhonda deHaan has lived in San Juan Capistrano only 10 years but has quickly embraced the town. She is a proud mother of two, a freelance writer, an SJC Friends of the Library board director, and is currently serving her sixth year on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.

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