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FAR MORE THAN A MISSION AND SOME BIRDS : A Walk Through San Juan Capistrano Offers a Lot to Check Out

November 18, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

You took your out-of-town relatives to visit the San Juan Capistrano mission years ago, and they're still joking about those swallows. But what else could there be in town that's worth a 1 1/2-hour guided tour?

Well, how about Los Rios Street, one of the oldest residential streets in California, where the picturesque bougainvillea-covered homes include three of the original 18th-Century adobes? Or the Eslinger building on Camino Capistrano, a Streamline Moderne beauty with a porthole window and curvy lines that look as though they belong on a '30s cruise ship? Or the Postmodern library designed in 1983 by superstar architect Michael Graves?

The Decorative Arts Study Center Docent Council is offering Saturday tours of all this and more, departing from the center at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Nov. 20 and 27.

Earlier this month, I joined a tour led by docent Jess Andrews, who gives the phrase brisk walk a new meaning.

With a background in giving tours for the Chicago Architectural Foundation, Andrews knows how to offer key tidbits of information to whet the interest and keep things moving. The nine of us were happily panting to keep up as she led us through a mile of territory covering some 200 years of architectural history.

One of the best things about the tour is the way architecture is discussed not as individual monuments but as part of the fabric of the whole community. In San Juan Capistrano, numerous regulations govern the location and appearance of new buildings in an effort to maintain the self-contained character of a gentle valley enclosed by hills and of a downtown geared for pedestrians instead of cars.

Andrews explained that buildings in the downtown historic district must incorporate features of the Spanish Revival or Monterrey styles, or river stones of the kind bordering the soccer field next to the old high school (a project of the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s).

History even governs the look of the parking structure built for patrons of the new movie theater. Because the site had been occupied by a brickyard and a factory, the brick-clad two-story structure--practically a high-rise in San Juan Capistrano terms--was deemed appropriate.

The tour starts at the center, on Camino Capistrano, with a look across the street at the high school building (built in 1938, now used as an adult education center). Above the doorway, a bas relief shows Father Junipero Serra, founder of the 18th-Century mission, and a high school boy with a football--an most unusual decorative motif for a public school.

Moments later, we had crossed the railroad tracks into a scene of drowsy country life a century ago. On Los Rios Street, the scent of eucalyptus wafted over simple board-and-batten dwellings built in Forster, a small town in North San Diego County that went bust in 1870. Wood was so scarce in those days that somebody actually thought it worthwhile to move the houses up North.

We crunched through fallen leaves in the homely yard of the 1794 Montanez adobe, which was restored a decade ago with city and county funds. The two-room building with a pitched wood roof and a narrow wood porch has no windows and no inside doors; you have to go outside to get from one room to the other.

Other landmarks included the John Coombs house--the former post office in Forster, decorated (if that's the word) with rusting wagon wheels--and the whitewashed Rios adobe, the oldest continuously occupied dwelling in Orange County.

Although gentrification can help conserve the past, it can also destroy local color in the name of consumer gratification and yuppie taste. But Andrews sounded pleased as she pointed out that an old two-story structure formerly housing a "raunchy bar" is now home to an upscale clothing store. (Fortunately, the Swallows Inn, a "raunchy bar" on Camino Capistrano, is still luring beer-gulping guys in cowboy hats and dusty boots.)

After glancing at the 1894 Spanish Revival railroad station--still in use, but now incorporating a bar and restaurant--we returned to the 20th Century with a jolt. No matter how carefully it is designed, a shopping center is still a shopping center. But the Franciscan Plaza has some saving graces.

The city wouldn't permit more than two stories in the Plaza so the third is below ground level. Andrews had us stand down there and look up the stairway to see a lovely bowl-shaped slice of blue sky. At the top of the stairs, the sidewalk tilts down toward the street, as if to spill pedestrians back into the life of the city.

Andrews had us pay attention to the way the downtown portion of Camino Capistrano is "visually stopped on each end," by the mission to the north and the hills to the south. She pointed out such diverse landmarks as the two-story Manuel Garcia adobe, which served as the first U.S. post office in Orange County, and the Victorian Italianate Judge Aken house (its original silhouette distorted by the addition of a hipped roof).

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