Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Most Historic Building in Orange County?

In 1796, Don Jesus Jose Maria Andreas Santiago Antonio Abramowitz was given permission by Mission San Juan Capistrano to build a home at what’s now 31971 Camino Capistrano, on the northwest corner at Del Obispo St. The men of the family mixed the adobe and made bricks while the women shaped the red clay roof tiles over their ample thighs.

Almost immediately upon its completion, cliff swallows began building their nests in the eaves of the house. One day, Fr. Junipero Serra was passing by the house just as the Don's son, Tavo, was shooing the birds away. Serra invited the birds to come live at the Mission, and they’ve been returning there ever since.(This annual migration, of course, inspired that beloved romantic hit tune of the 1940s, "Inka Dinka Doo.")

In December 1818, the cut-throat pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard ransacked San Juan Capistrano and commandeered the old adobe as his base of operations, burying a share of his pirate treasure under the home’s dirt floors. It is said that some of the treasure may yet remain.
In the 1850s, the building served as a stagecoach stop and roadside coffeehouse, operated by Juan Valdez. In the early 1850s, Valdez let the adobe’s basement be used as a hide-out for the notorious highwayman Joaquin Murrieta. The famous bandit fell in love with Valdez’ daughter, Guadalupe. After Murrieta’s death, Guadalupe could never bring herself to marry another man. She would tell the story of her whirlwind romance to anyone who would listen, right up until her death at the astonishing age of 135.

(The basement later also served as a hideout for Juan Flores, the Tomato Springs Bandit, and Patty Hearst during her time with the S.L.A. Each fugitive left their name etched in the adobe walls.)

For some years after the mission was secularized, the adobe served as the local Catholic Church. In fact, it was here, in 1865, that President Abraham Lincoln signed the document which returned the mission to the Church’s ownership. It’s said that his ghost can still be seen playing mumbleypeg on the porch each Presidents Day at midnight.

Shortly after the repatriation of the mission, the old adobe was purchased by Horst D. Westenfiel who sold beer and sandwiches. Ramona, (the half-Indian beauty for whom Helen Hunt Jackson’s named her blockbuster novel), famously ate part of a cheese sandwich there in the 1870s. Beginning around 1890 and continuing for half a century, the adobe was best known to tens of thousands of tourists as "The Place Where Ramona Ate A Cheese Sandwich." (Trade in Ramona/sandwich-related tourist tchotchkes kept the town's economy afloat even during the Great Depression.)

Next to the adobe was the famous “Old Hanging Tree,” on which many a criminal met a sudden end. Eventually the tree died, but its wood was used to build actress Helena Modjeska's home in the Santa Ana Mountains.
The main room as it appeared prior to the 1960 adaptive reuse project. Note the circa 1900 fireplace.
The back room of the adobe -- accessible via an outside door -- served as the town's first public library until the 1920s, when the building's new owner, Bessie May Mucho converted the whole building into a combination cathouse and speakeasy.

Rumrunners brought in booze through an old tunnel in the basement – once used for quick escapes by Murrieta – which ended in another basement on the far side of Camino Capistrano. The tunnel is sealed off now, but still exists and is said to be haunted.

Because it was so historically important, Walter Knott moved the adobe to Knott’s Berry Farm in 1941. But he moved it back when Capistrano locals complained.

In the early 1950s, the adobe was part of a large area suggested as a site for the future Disneyland by the Stanford Research Institute in a report developed for Walt Disney. Being close to a freeway and another major tourist attraction (the mission) was seen as a benefit. But the site was ultimately found unsuitable because a portion of it sat on an ancient Indian cemetery. Walt said a cemetery in his theme park would have been, "like, a major bummer, man."
Among the more modern of the many historical plaques that slather the adobe.
In 1961, the building was rehabbed and repurposed to become San Juan Capistrano Bank. Conveniently, the corner intended as the vault already had double-reinforced walls thanks to a brief period during which the building was used as the county jail.

Since then, it has remained a bank, cycling through a number of names, including Southern California First National Bank and California First Bank. It was already a Union Bank (its current name) in 1996 when an unarmed but extremely convincing robber made off with almost $2,000.

Many famous Orange County residents, including Gwen Stefani, Dean R. Koontz, John Wayne, Dennis Rodman, Richard Nixon and Octomom, have done their banking there.

A recent environmental impact report on the adobe found it to have no historical significance. It's scheduled to be bulldozed and replaced with a frozen yogurt stand next year.


Alan Hess said...

Always good to read solid historical research -- you know it when you see it.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and insightful information on a building I never knew held such significance. It shows the determination to factual research that sets you above all other OC historical blog sites.

I don't have much to add, but I do know when Walter Knott was forced to return the building from his park, back to its original site, the open space at the park desperately needed to be filled and he attempted to purchase and move an historical building from Philadelphia - but the moving cost was too high so he had to come up with another idea.

Anonymous said...

When can I buy yogurt there?

retrocounty said...

I never knew it was a historical landmark. I see it all the time when I eat at the taqueria

Steve S. said...

Maybe I'm missing something here, but this seems like a terrible idea to demolish this building. A building this old and with so much history, which also appears to be in reasonably good condition should not be torn down. For another frozen yogurt place of all things.

Anonymous said...

You had me believing this until you said that Abraham Lincoln signed a document there in 1865. I know that never happened! He never got out to California, although he did mention to his wife Mary that he would like to visit there after he retired. April Fools!

Barry said...

Hilarious!!!! Bessie May Mucho can Kiss me too!
Nice job!!!!

jasmine nile said...