Swallows come and go, but families like to nest here

When it comes to stepping back in time, the Los Rios Historic District in San Juan Capistrano can claim major bragging rights. It is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in California, with adobe homes built in the 1790s and 200-year-old pepper and olive trees.


The historic district is just a stone's throw from Mission San Juan Capistrano, and the origins of both are intertwined. Forty adobe structures were built on and around Los Rios Street in 1794 as housing for Indian neophytes with ties to the mission. This was unusual and a step up in living standards: At most missions, the new converts lived in reed huts.

Of the original structures, only the Silvas, Rios and Montanez adobes remain. The Rios Adobe is now home to the 10th generation of the same family and is one of the oldest residences in California to be continuously occupied by a single family, according to the local historical society.

Over the years, most of the adobe structures were neglected or demolished. From 1887 to 1910, many of these homes were replaced by board-and-batten houses, a construction technique that alternates wide boards and narrow wooden strips. These small, rectangular homes are considered "contributing structures" to the historic district.

To add to the mix, other vintage homes have been moved into the district. A few newer homes have been built; however, any new construction must follow stringent size and design guidelines. There are 31 structures that have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

What it's about

Part of the neighborhood's charm stems from its soundtrack: the ringing of mission bells, the rumble of trains, the birds singing in its many trees. A walk down Los Rios Street harks back to an earlier time.

"It has a magical, mystical feel to it," says Rosalinda Hernandez, a Re/Max agent who lives nearby. "It's so charming, so relaxing to stroll down the street."

The Los Rios district is adjacent to the Capistrano train depot, which acts as a boundary. The district is zoned for both residential and commercial use, with some of the historic structures now used as a museum, shops and restaurants.

Insider's view

Josie Trujillo has lived in Los Rios off and on since 1959. She moved out of the neighborhood when she married but returned in 2000. She purchased land on Los Rios Street and built an 1,800-square-foot board-and-batten house.

Trujillo, who converted one of her bedrooms into a beauty shop called Josie's Hair Salon, said, "This is a very desirable place to live because you can own a business here as well."

She added that the neighborhood hadn't changed much since she grew up there. And it's a congenial place.

"In the summer," Trujillo said, "we watch outdoor movies together in a neighbor's backyard."

Nothing compares, of course, to the celebration of the swallows' return in March. Legend has it that the birds head south to Argentina in October and return to San Juan Capistrano each March.

The annual celebration began centuries ago when it was noted that the swallows' return coincided with St. Joseph's Day.

Good news, bad news

People who live in the Los Rios Historic District consider it a big plus that it's a walkable neighborhood. Residents are close to the mission and the center of town, which has a number of fine restaurants, shops and markets.

The good news is that there are no sidewalks, so folks can stroll down the middle of the quiet road. The bad news is that there are no sidewalks, so pedestrians have to scurry to the side when a car passes.

Crowds of tourists bring business, but they sometimes overstep their bounds.

"Residents are good-humored about tourists who sometimes go into their yards and take pictures of their homes," real estate agent Hernandez says.

Housing stock

Many of the homes in the district are historically significant.

Homes don't come on the market very often. One listed at $1,395,000 is described in a real estate flier as a "charming vintage turn-of-the-century property" with two cottages and a multipurpose building, on a quarter of an acre lot, that face the mission's bell tower. It is zoned for both residential and commercial.

Report card

Students who live in the Los Rios Historic District can attend Kinoshita Elementary, which scored 661 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2007 Academic Performance Index Growth Report. Marco Forster Middle School scored 757.

A new high school, San Juan Hills, opened in September and is adding grade levels over the next few years. Most high schoolers from Los Rios now attend Capistrano Valley High, which scored 795.