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SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO : Historic Home in Artistic Hands Now

If the ghost of Judge Richard Egan still roams the halls of his 19th-Century downtown home, he undoubtedly has a smile on his face.

For even Egan, dubbed the “king of Capistrano” by Madame Helena Modjeska around the turn of the century, could not have foreseen his Harmony Hall--as the old home on Camino Capistrano is called--commanding the $725,000 purchase price recently paid by local gallery owner Sue DiMaio.

DiMaio, who will relocate her Galeria Capistrano to the Egan home, said she also plans to spend “about another $200,000" fixing up the 3,000-square-foot, solid-brick home, which was built about 1885.

The total cost of nearly $1 million could have purchased large tracts of land and many homes back in 1868, when Egan arrived. But while he didn’t have $1 million, Egan was by no means a poor man.

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As told in Pamela Gibson’s book, “Dos Cientos Anos en San Juan Capistrano” (Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano), Egan was an Irish immigrant lured to San Francisco during the Gold Rush years and eventually migrated south with a fortune (a route also taken by another Irish immigrant, James Irvine).

Egan arrived in San Juan Capistrano and first purchased 160 acres of farmland near the confluence of Oso and Trabuco creeks. Later he bought 600 more acres east of Mission San Juan Capistrano, before building his Harmony Hall and moving downtown.

Egan was said to be a surveyor, although no one seems to know for sure, just as no one seems to really know if he was really a judge.

“How Egan got to be a surveyor no one knows,” said Tony Forster, whose great-grandfather, Marcos Forster, was once Egan’s next-door neighbor. “But he was always a surveyor with two types of chains, including ones made of rubber for his friends.”

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If not officially a judge, he certainly was a local arbiter, Forster said.

“He might have been a justice of the peace--I’m not sure. He was sort of a self-taught guy in many respects. Perhaps he was just a little better educated than anyone else,” Forster said.

Egan was hired in 1883 to build Marcos Forster’s Casa Grande, a two-story brick residence that sat behind Harmony Hall in what is now Birtcher Plaza, Forster said.

“The story is that Egan and Marcos were friends and Egan was placed in charge of construction of Casa Grande,” Forster said. “When he ordered the bricks, there just happened to be enough left over for another two-story home. Those leftover bricks wound up building Harmony Hall.”

The home eventually became a showplace of Gay Nineties San Juan Capistrano, according to Gibson’s book. Harmony Hall was the site of lavish dinner parties, piano recitals and town meetings for the ranchers and socialites who enjoyed those days of prosperity in the 1890s.

Egan, a lifelong bachelor, a school trustee for 32 years and Los Angeles County supervisor from 1885 to 1889 (before Orange County existed) was part of a grand group who entertained in their mansions.

Egan’s home had recently been abandoned after being sold to two attorneys who had planned to make it an office, but never completed the renovation.

DiMaio, who has been in business in the area for about 40 years, says she hopes to make the home available for community events and performances.

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