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Renowned Orange County historian and conservationist Ilse Byrnes dies at 94

Ilse Byrnes sits in front of the restored 1794 Montanez Adobe house in San Juan Capistrano in 2013.
Ilse Byrnes sits in front of the restored 1794 Montanez Adobe house in the Los Rios Historic District of San Juan Capistrano in 2013. Byrnes died Jan. 12 at age 94.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

In a decades-long preservation effort that included San Juan Capistrano’s Los Rios Street, San Clemente’s Casa Romantica and what’s now Crystal Cove State Park, Ilse Byrnes enjoyed another marked accomplishment: She fit in with the locals.

The influential historian and conservationist died Jan. 12 at the age of 94, leaving a legacy that longtime friend and fellow activist Jerry Nieblas said is akin to that of a multigenerational family with roots in early California.

“She wasn’t from a historical family, but it was like she had been here forever,” Nieblas said. “It’s going to be a big missing link that we don’t have her as a resource; it’s just going to be huge. There was nothing fake about her. She knew her stuff.”

A Switzerland native and longtime resident of San Juan Capistrano, Byrnes spearheaded efforts to get national recognition for most of the historical properties outside 246-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano, beginning in 1976 with a seven-year effort to place the Los Rios Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The history that exists outside the Mission walls is because of Ilse Byrnes,” said Nieblas, whose family has lived in San Juan Capistrano since the pre-Mission era. “So much of what I know even about my own family and my own history is because Ilse stimulated that part of my life.”

Preservation and trails

Of the 13 San Juan Capistrano properties listed in the National Register’s online database, Byrnes submitted the applications for nine, navigating bureaucracies in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and documenting property history through photographs, interviews and her own written reports. Her last victory was the Judge Richard Egan House in 2017, which is now home to a café.

“For every single project, she never charged the city a cent,” said Jan Siegel, a longtime friend and fellow researcher. “She just took it upon herself to do all these things, and thank God she did. Heaven knows what would have happened if it hadn’t been for her.” 

Her work extended well beyond the city. It included a seminal effort to save Crystal Cove from development in the late 1970s, and it included the successful nomination of San Clemente founder Ole Hanson’s Casa Romantica to the National Register in 1990.

It also included a dedication to outdoor conservation statewide. An avid horseback rider, Byrnes led efforts to build the trail system that connects San Juan’s hillsides and other trails through Orange County and the state. The California Trails and Greenways foundation awarded Byrnes its volunteer lifetime achievement award in 1999. 

“It was a link to the equestrians, which is a link to our history. A link to vaquero, early rancho life,” Nieblas said. “Everything that Ilse did was linked up to history.”

State Historian Jay Correia said Byrnes made him feel especially welcome when he started his job 15 years ago.

“By talking with her I found out she was working in preservation when I was still figuring out how to spell the word,” Corriea said. “And she’s immediately treating you as an important peer. She exuded that. But I could also tell she didn’t suffer fools gladly.”

Swimmer, equestrian, animal lover

Byrnes moved to the U.S. when she was 23 and got a job as a lab technician at Los Angeles County Hospital, where she met a young pathologist named Roy Byrnes. They married in 1954, living overseas during Roy’s Army service and in Capistrano Beach before having a home custom built in 1969 atop a hillside in San Juan Capistrano, where Roy Byrnes was elected to the city council in 1972 and again in 2012. After Roy died in 2019, the city renamed the Prima Deshecha Trail the Ilse and Dr. Roy Byrnes Trail.

Residents approved the Distrito La Novia-San Juan Meadows project 10 years ago, but that aspect of the project is reined in by uncertainty.

The couple loved to travel, and Illse Byrnes was fluent in at least five languages, including French, Italian, German and Spanish. She also in her later years was a champion swimmer, and she had a lifelong affection for animals from the dogs, cats, donkeys, sheep and goats she kept at her home near Ortega Highway to the thousands of birds she took in over the years.

“She was known as the bird lady of Orange County,” Siegel said. “Her backyard was filled with cages of all sizes for all kinds of birds, and she would nurse them back to health. The bigger the bird, it didn’t matter to her.”

Her daughter Barbara Byrnes remembers always having animals around when she and her two brothers and sister were growing up, including a raven who lived for 32 years and could talk. Its mother had been shot, and Ilse raised it from a chick, naming him Herkimer.  

She began using a walker in the last couple of years but still enjoyed staying involving in the community, including attending a weekly community coffee chat on Friday at Hennessy’s because, as friend Shelly Barker of the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition remembers her saying, “My body may be gone, but my brain’s not dead.”

A jogger runs on the beach in Crystal Cove State Park.
A jogger runs on the beach in Crystal Cove State Park. Preservation of the area was driven in part by Ilse Byrnes, who died earlier this month.
(Mark Boster/Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

Saving ‘tenuous’ Crystal Cove

For years, Nieblas said, the Byrnes’ home on the hillside was the first thing people saw when they came into San Juan Capistrano from the south.

“There was always a reminder of the Byrnes’ presence,” Nieblas said. 

The home gave Byrnes a bird’s-eye view as south Orange County developed around her, and her early efforts to preserve historic properties shows she was wary of Los Angeles sprawl encroaching on the area.

Her 1978 application for Crystal Cove warned: “The huge metropolitan population of Los Angeles is fast encroaching on this last piece of open beach and on this last unchanged beach colony.”

She detailed the history of the 46 wooden cottages built in the 1930s and said the current situation was “tenuous,” blaming the owner at the time, the Irvine Co., for ending leases in favor of month-to-month rentals, despite some cottages being occupied by third- and fourth-generation families. Crystal Cove was added to the National Register in 1979, the same year the Irvine Co. sold the property to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Nieblas said he’ll think of Byrnes each time he looks out at San Juan’s hillsides. Her daughter said the family is planning a celebration of life on April 16 at El Adobe de Capistrano restaurant at 11 a.m., and Nieblas hopes the city does something major to honor her.

“I’m afraid she might be lost a little bit to time, and she can’t be forgotten” Nieblas said. “She was one hell of an amazing woman.”

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to Times OC. She’s on Twitter @meghanncuniff.

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