Offered FREE: SJC Hstrc Fmhse, Fixr : Rosenbaum House Waits for a Taker

Times Staff Writer

It’s a real estate deal like few to be found in Orange County. The property: a 2,000-square-foot turn-of-the-century redwood farmhouse of historical value in San Juan Capistrano. The asking price: free.

There is a catch, of course. The taker has to move the house--possibly in pieces--off its lot. And then it must be fixed up, which may cost as much as it would to buy one of the tract houses that will be going up in its place.

Even so, its owner will have a real treasure, San Juan Capistrano history buffs say. The Rosenbaum house, named for the family that owned it for decades, is the last remaining farmhouse on Ortega Highway.

“It’s a piece of history, a piece of an old family that was very prominent at the turn of the century,” said Ilse Byrnes, a San Juan Capistrano preservationist who has nominated many places for historical recognition. “It’s a wonderful example of a farmhouse in San Juan, which was very famous for its farms, its walnuts, its oranges and avocados. This house was part of the history of San Juan.”


Indeed, a scrappy orchard of orange, lemon and other fruit trees is still on the 2.5 acres behind the now-dilapidated structure.

Not for long, though.

City officials have approved plans for property owners Patrick Meek and Cyndi Fritz to build seven single-family houses on the lot, but the approval requires Meek and Fritz to make a good-faith effort to find a taker for the house. The City Council has said that if no one steps forward to take the house, the city will do something to save it.

“If they can’t find someone--before that house gets touched--we want it to come back before the City Council. We don’t want it destroyed,” Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer said. “The fact that it is approaching 100 years old is very significant. We don’t treat these things lightly in this city.”


Even without the impending housing development, Meek and Fritz point out, the likelihood that the Rosenbaum house would have remained at that site, about 1 1/2 miles east of Interstate 5, was doubtful. To say that it is situated on Ortega Highway is not much of an exaggeration. The house is perched on the shoulder of the road, only two lanes wide at that spot, which means drivers must execute a skillful bit of maneuvering to avoid it. Noisy 16-wheelers and speeding cars whiz by just a few feet from the front door. Caltrans plans to widen the highway to four lanes in late 1991 or early 1992, a spokesman said, and the new lane would run smack into the house.

Although just about everyone agrees that the house is historically significant, its exact age is a matter of dispute.

According to a California Department of Transportation report on the house, the 40-by-44-foot main structure was built in 1912 on a wood foundation. It is made of redwood single-wall board-and-batten construction, the term for the style of building that has narrow strips of wood covering the seams of the wider boards. Two 20-by-8-foot additions on the rear and west side of the house were made in the 1920s, and a small guest house was added on the northeast corner of the lot in 1932.

But Melvin Rosenbaum, who moved into the house as an 11-year-old in 1935, insists that it was built in the 1890s, and Byrnes said other research supports the claim for the earlier date.


First Owner

The house was originally built for Trinidad Goodwin, who managed the Mission Viejo Ranch. Rosenbaum’s father, Edwin M. Rosenbaum, was a rancher too. The Rosenbaum family has been associated with farming in the San Juan Capistrano area since 1869, when Henry C. Rosenbaum settled in the community, according to Caltrans’ report.

Melvin Rosenbaum said that the Ortega Highway was always right outside the front door.

“Oh yes, but it didn’t have near the traffic in 1935. The trucks weren’t that big, and the cars didn’t go that fast,” he said with a chuckle.


Through the years, as cars became swifter and trucks became ever bigger, the Rosenbaums remodeled the house and rented it out. When Rosenbaum’s brother Edwin sold the property to Meek and Fritz, the new owners inherited some tenants, now living there rent-free.

Meek, who is president of Meek Construction Co. of Dana Point, said people in the community have known for several months that he will give the house to anyone who can take it away.

No Commitment

Actually, two people have already expressed interest in the house, although neither has made any commitment yet.


Melvin Rosenbaum said that he would love to have the house himself but that he cannot afford to move it. He hopes, he said, that he can negotiate with Meek or another party to strike a deal whereby that party would pay for moving the house to his property in Trabuco Canyon. He would then restore it, he said, possibly using it to show antiques.

Don Nadeau, a San Juan Capistrano masonry contractor with a love for old houses, has also expressed interest. Nadeau has had house movers out to look at the building. He was told, he said, that the house can withstand a move, although it might have to be moved in two pieces. He has been advised that moving it would cost at least $16,000, he said. Others in town said they have heard estimates as high as $200,000.

Nadeau said his problem has been finding a piece of land for the house. He would prefer to buy something on or near Ortega Highway, he said, as that would not only keep the moving cost down but also do more to maintain the historical significance of the house.

Getting a hard estimate for restoration costs is even tougher. Meek and others say that stricter and costlier building standards will apply should the house be used as a dwelling, as opposed to a museum, office or meeting place. Meek estimates that restoring it would cost at least $200,000.


Nadeau said he wants to move into the farmhouse and that he would restore it himself over a period of years.

‘Neat Details’

“I kind of like the older style houses,” he said. The Rosenbaum house “has some neat details inside, like around the doors, and the wood floors and old bathtubs. It’s not fancy, but I don’t like drywall and cottage-cheese ceilings. It would be neat to restore it, or just to have something that people can appreciate as a work of art.”

If all else fails, Hausdorfer said, the City Council will probably move the house someplace where it can be kept until its future is decided. Although that will take money, he said, “the council tries to reflect what the people of this community would like to see done, and there is a strong sense of historical preservation here.”


Marilyn Thorpe, chairwoman of the city Cultural Arts and Heritage Commission, said her agency had hoped Meek could move the Rosenbaum house farther back onto the lot, out of the path of the highway but still on its original property. It would thus have been incorporated into Meek’s development of three- and four-bedroom houses.

Meek said he looked into that possibility but that “the economics don’t work.” While saying he was sympathetic to the concerns of preservationists, he pointed out that had he and Fritz not come on the scene, “Caltrans eventually would have solved the problem” by demolishing it.

Planning Commissioner Mary Jane Forster, a preservation activist, said she is heartened by the City Council’s response but that she has also heard people say “they didn’t want their tax dollars spent on ‘that dilapidated house.’ ”

‘A Vision’


People “should have a vision about the house,” Forster said. “Maybe it has gotten into deteriorated condition. Maybe it’s not the finest construction by today’s standard. But there’s a contingency out there of people who cherish houses like this.”

And although some people say they do not want to see money spent on buying and restoring old homes, she said, their tunes change after the buildings are finished and open for view. “Everything that has been preserved has always been loved by the people,” she said.

History buff Byrnes is just happy that, whatever the means, it looks as if the farmhouse has been saved from the wrecking ball.

“These old homes are not like today’s tract homes, one like the other,” Byrnes said. “In many of these older homes, a lot of love and understanding went into them. Each of them is different. They were all custom homes.