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Wanted: A Tenant With a Touch of TLC for Historic O.C. Home

Officials seek an occupant for a San Juan Capistrano house built in the 1870s.

August 21, 2004|Erin Ailworth | Times Staff Writer

The Wedgewood stove clock in the more than 125-year-old house buzzes as the second hand turns, audibly counting down the minutes until an owner comes home.

But the city-owned Congdon House has no occupants.

San Juan Capistrano officials, however, want to change that. This week, they started seeking proposals from individuals, foundations and organizations interested in occupying the house while maintaining its historic integrity. It's unclear how much a tenant would pay.

The redwood-frame house -- built in the late 1870s by Pony Express rider Joel R. Congdon for his large family -- occupies a corner of South Coast Farms, a working farm and petting zoo, and is the oldest such home in San Juan Capistrano.

Until two years ago, its age showed.

Then began renovation efforts led by the city, which owns at least 10 such historic buildings and leases several that have been restored and opened to the public. According to historic preservation manager Erin Gettis, the city purchased the Congdon House in the 1990s to save remnants of San Juan Capistrano's original agricultural community. History has it that Joel Congdon was the first to plant a walnut grove in Orange County.

Officials hope to find a tenant by Oct. 1 who is willing to keep part of the house as a museum. It is zoned for agricultural-business uses, such as a nursery or greenhouse, so other uses would require a special permit from the city.

"In my mind, the ideal tenant would be someone who could move in and use it as it is," Gettis said, adding that the city is willing to consider uses outside of what is permitted under the house's zoning.

But until a tenant is found, the gray-and-white Congdon House sits empty.

A square of grass around the house fights for survival against encroaching weeds and the glaring sun. A tomato plant is stealthily crawling up the left side of the porch.

The house itself is a jewel of hardwood floors, original staircases built with square nails sent from San Francisco, sparkling lead-paned windows and simple square detailing echoed in the moldings, doors and cabinetry. A central fireplace in the main room is anchored by a stone hearth engraved with a Celtic cross.

Rita Nieblas, 76, grew up in the house, and local lore has it that she was born on the dining room table.

"I lived there 18 years, and those were the best years of my life," Nieblas said. "The life down there, the freedom we had, the house, just the whole ranch -- it was nice."

Nieblas remembers the parties her parents would have: a house full of people dancing around the fireplace. She remembers gorging herself on homegrown produce -- acres worth of lemons and oranges, walnuts and avocados.

And she remembers details, such as the door to an upstairs balcony that had been walled over and was recently restored.

"My dad used to send me outside when it would rain, you know, and we would have flooding," Nieblas said. "He would send me upstairs on the [balcony] outside to see how close the [creek] water was."

Mary Margaret Cook Elliott, a direct descendant of Joel Congdon, said she remembers the house from her childhood. The 77-year-old San Juan Capistrano resident never lived there, but remembers being friends with Nieblas.

"I would visit [Rita], and at that time I had a small horse and I used to ride down there and I'd beg tortillas off her mother," Elliott said.

She said she is proud of the city's efforts to keep alive her and Orange County's shared heritage.

"I hope one of the things somebody might do is set up some sort of agricultural section ... where [students] could come and see how some of the walnut trees were grown, how the orange trees were grown, how they were picked and what happened to them," Elliott said.

That "was really the history of the town."

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