Past is always a present for San Juan Capistrano preservationist
For the last several decades, Swiss-born preservationist Ilse Byrnes, 86, has battled to save places that tell California's story.
lse Byrnes wanders down Los Rios Street, pointing out San Juan Capistrano's patchwork of historic homes: elegant Victorians, 18th century adobes, picket-fenced cottages sheltered by a scattering of trees. Just across the tracks, a construction company is remodeling a two-story adobe building. A sign says it'll be a winery.
She grumbles. "Oh, God. Another winery."
Workers at the construction site sift through dirt and debris, searching, in part, fornative artifacts under the guidance of Joyce Stanfield Perry, of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians. Perry stops and waves at Byrnes.
"How are ya? Did you find any treasures?" Byrnes asks.
"Lots," Perry says.
Outside a teahouse, Byrnes greets a gaggle of older women wearing red hats, purple suits, and some feathers and beads to match — members of the Red Hat Society social group who had taken the train to San Juan on a sightseeing trip.
So it goes throughout her stroll-slash-tour: The 86-year-old preservationist is a bit of an institution in this town she fell in love with more than five decades ago.
Down the road, she passes a cottage once owned by San Diego Gas & Electric. The company wanted to rid itself of the building, so the city moved it into the historic district, she says.
Her lips form a tight smile. She lowers her voice to a whisper.
"I have a little fight with them right now," she says.
Fights are nothing new to Byrnes. In southern Orange County, where blocks of master-planned homes extend from the hills to the beaches, she has spent the last several decades battling to save places that tell California's story.
If you've ever spent a night in a 1930s seaside bungalow at Crystal Cove State Park (or tried to; reservations are famously hard to get) or sipped coffee on the porch of an early 19th century home on Los Rios, you might want to thank Byrnes.
If you were aghast last year when a 40-foot-long dinosaur suddenly loomed over the quaint center of town, thank Byrnes for helping to get the statue shipped to Arizona. If, by chance, you saw that uproar as going a bit far in the battle to conserve the past, Byrnes has a few curt words for you:
"It would be like painting Mickey Mouse on the Vatican grounds. It would be like that."
The Swiss-born former medical technician spent years teaching herself architecture and history to pursue a decades-long passion that she explains matter-of-factly:
"If you don't preserve it, then it's gone. And once it's gone, it's gone. You can't re-create it."
Southern California has often been a place eager to raze even its recent history — communities are torn down to make room for strip malls that quickly lose their luster; new home developments become passe when newer ones are built.
Byrnes has little tolerance for such thinking. Like Claire Bogaard, the fierce Pasadena advocate of historical preservation who wins praise and incites anger (at times from the same person), Byrnes has her share of admirers — and those who wonder if she takes things too far.
Some people collect old cigarette boxes. I collect history."
— Ilse Byrnes, San Juan Capistrano preservationist
When Carolyn Franks, who owns a petting zoo on Los Rios Street, bought the dinosaur statue, thinking it would help children get excited about learning, Byrnes was indignant. She wrote to a local news site, calling the statue a "monster" — a word she's fond of. She wrote that Franks showed no respect for history and that she was trying to turn the beloved historical district into Jurassic Park.
"I've tried talking to her many times about just being a little more open-minded," Franks said. "Things just aren't how they used to be. Kids want now. They don't want then."
The way Byrnes sees it, people pay lip service to the idea of historic preservation but aren't always prepared to do what's needed to keep the past from being erased.
Over the last four decades, she's been responsible for listing or helping list 13 sites on the National Register of Historic Places and for helping to preserve many more in southern Orange County.
"Some people collect old cigarette boxes," she says. "I collect history."
If Byrnes were an architectural type, she'd be Streamline Moderne like the Esslinger, a building she got listed decades ago: She is slim and wears her silver hair clipped into a short crop that frames her face.
She speaks with a hint of a Swiss German accent, is soft-spoken but doesn't mince words. When asked how she decided to nominate a particular adobe to the national register, she replied: "I just did it. I don't ask."
Born in Basel, Switzerland, where the town center dates to the medieval ages, she was 23 and filled with wanderlust when her uncle, the consul general of Switzerland in Los Angeles, invited her to California. She had been here four years when she met a man, married and never left.
In 1959, they moved to Orange County and soon began building a home in San Juan Capistrano. At the time, the town had just a few thousand residents, the type of place where she and her children could saddle up their horses and "clippity clop" to the Colony Kitchen restaurant for lunch.
"Everybody knew everybody else. It was really nice, sort of a cozy community. And then it started growing and growing and growing. We saw the cows disappear and the people moving in."
By Southern California standards, San Juan Capistrano is still small, with only about 35,000 residents. Its centerpiece is the 18th century mission and its ruined basilica, which stands sentry over a street of restaurants and knickknack shops. Over the years, gated communities with multimillion-dollar mission-style homes have taken root in the hills that loom up to the east. Older homes in the town center were torn down and replaced.
Byrnes was raising her children and working for her husband part time when, in the mid-'70s, the president of the historical society asked if she had a couple of extra hours a month to research old buildings.
Her husband, Roy Byrnes, now a San Juan Capistrano councilman, says she threw herself at the task.
"Whenever she takes on a project," he says, "she's intense."
In 1976, she began the process of nominating the stretch of homes on Los Rios Street, which once served as a pathway for Juaneño Indians who carried water to the mission, to the National Register of Historic Places. She spent months learning about the origins and styles of all 31 properties in the neighborhood.
Listing a site on the register doesn't prevent owners from modifying or even demolishing buildings. But it does offer a measure of protection through local restrictions, grants, tax incentives and special consideration when certain projects are concerned. Owners also tend to think twice about demolishing listed buildings.
In a 21-page application, she wrote that Los Rios was unique not because of any spectacular design but because the community of unassuming homes and old trees was a reminder of a bygone life, a place that retained "the feeling of the small-town character of San Juan Capistrano at the turn of the century."
It took seven years of back and forth with Sacramento officials before the application was approved.
There's an entire industry of consultants who get paid to submit applications on behalf of property owners and governments, says Jay Correia, of the state's Office of Historic Preservation, which reviews all California applications to the National Register. Only a small number are submitted by private citizens.
Byrnes has "a certain forcefulness about her," Correia says. She's a "rare person that recognizes the importance of preserving those places associated with the people and events that made us who we are."
San Juan's main drag, Camino Capistrano, is the site of Byrnes' latest battle, to stop San Diego Gas & Electric from razing a closed 1918 utilities building. In its place, she says, the power company wants to put up a "three-story monster" of a building at the entrance to town.
Earlier this year, Byrnes nominated the substation to the national register in a last-ditch effort to stop the plan.
Much of the original 1918 building is now gone, says Duane Cave, external relations manager for SDG&E: "The building itself does not hold a historic significance to be listed. It's basically just a shell at this point." The new facilities, he says, are needed to serve a part of the county that has grown rapidly.
Byrnes admits that the neoclassical building, a beige box with clean lines and minimal embellishment, isn't particularly striking. But she argues that it tells a story. Without it, she says, "we would not have survived. It was key to development."
The nomination has stalled in Sacramento, where officials say Byrnes has yet to show that the building meets the criteria to be listed.
If she fails to change their minds, it will be a first.
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