Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Ilse Byrnes (1927-2022)

Ilse Byrnes leading an O.C. Historical Society tour at the Montanez Adobe, 2016. (Photo by author)

One of my heroes has passed: Ilse M. Byrnes. San Juan Capistrano would be a much lesser place and much of its rich heritage would already be long gone if not for her decades of hard work and tenacity. Her name should be remembered alongside Fr. St. John O'Sullivan when we speak of preservation in Orange County. I'm proud to have known her. 

Krista Nicholds of Preserve O.C. writes, "Ilse successfully nominated 16 sites in Orange County to the National or California Register [of Historic Places]- mostly in San Juan Capistrano, including her last in 2015, the SDG&E Substation building on Camino Capistrano which was facing imminent demolition and is still standing- but also Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach and Casa Romantica in San Clemente!!"

And that doesn't even take into account the many other historic sites that may not have ended up on state or national registers but which she also had a hand in protecting. She was also a great tour guide -- sharing her love and knowledge of her adopted hometown. (She was from Switzerland.)
Ilse with Jerry Nieblas in Capistrano, 2016.

She never did seem comfortable in the limelight and seemed to keep a low profile when not actively in the process of rattling people's cages. I can think of many meetings of the O.C. Historical Commission where she barely said a word. She saved her fire for when it would do the most good. That said, she was always one of the smartest people in any room she was in. 

Ilse held strong opinions and acted with conviction. Once she even threw a brontosaurus out of the Los Rios district! She objected to the giant concrete dinosaur in front of a local business in the otherwise well-curated historical district. There was a staring contest and the dinosaur lost. 

One of my favorite moments in Huell Howser's "California's Gold" TV series was when Ilse gave him a tour of Los Rios. She was being professional and polite, but I actually laughed out loud at some of her comments. I'm sure the subtext was entirely lost on Huell and 99.999% of his audience, but those who knew Ilse knew exactly what she was up to! 

In addition to her preservation work, Ilse was also an advocate for local equestrianism and helped establish San Juan Capistrano's excellent trail system.

Her husband, former San Juan Capistrano mayor Dr. Roy Byrnes, passed away in 2019

Like so many, I'm sad Ilse Byrnes is gone -- but I'm so glad she was here.