Arts & Entertainment

Historical adobe reopens in San Juan Capistrano after renovation

Montanez Adobe in San Juan Capistrano reopened this week after undergoing renovations.  The adobe is in one of California's oldest neighborhoods.  The home is more than 200 years old.
Montanez Adobe in San Juan Capistrano reopened this week after undergoing renovations. The adobe is in one of California's oldest neighborhoods. The home is more than 200 years old.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Nearly everyone’s heard of Mission San Juan Capistrano and its famous swallows that return every year. But within steps of the mission is one of California’s oldest neighborhoods – Los Rios Street. It’s filled with old adobe buildings that date back more than 200 years.

Crews have just finished fixing up one of those adobes. And yesterday, American Indians blessed one of the old houses.

They chanted a blessing as the smell of burning sage whiffed through the air. They stood outside the tiny, two-room Montanez adobe, in a garden filled with native plants.

Their American-Indian ancestors built this old house, which now has cacti as tall as ancient trees in the desert-like yard.

"There are not that many historic adobes left in the state of California," says Teri Delcamp, the historic preservation manager for the city of San Juan Capistrano. "This one, as far as we can tell, was built in 1794. It was one of about 40 adobes that were built for Mission neophytes and soldiers attached to the Mission. They were built as homes for them to live in. That’s well over 200 years, so they’re very old and very precious in the state of California."

The adobe is named for its first deed holder, Polonia Montanez, who lived here through much of the 1800s and into the early 1900s. She was a midwife who taught religion in the village when there wasn’t a priest.

Lorie Porter, who leads walking tours through the neighborhood, says Montanez became a bit of legend in the city, especially after a long drought in the late 1800s left Southern California bone-dry.

"Because she had the children that she gave religious instruction to, she said, 'We’re going to take these children and we’re going to go on a prayer vigil, and by the end of the prayer vigil, we will have rain,'" Porter says.

"So she went to Dana Point the first day with all of her children – I think there were about 20 – came all the way back. No rain. The second day, she went to Trabuco. Came back. No rain. The third day, they went down to San Juan Beach and they were sitting on the sand and they were praying and all of a sudden, the dark clouds came in," Porter recounts the story. "And it started, just a deluge, just really pouring. The townspeople were worried, so they got in their buckboards and they went down to pick the children up, and Dona Polonia said, 'No. We’re not doing this. We’re going to finish it. And so we will walk home in the rain.'"

They did. The drought was broken. And a legend was born. Polonia lived in the adobe until her death in 1917.

"It’s a very, very special place," Porter says, as she stands on the back porch of the old adobe. "I don’t know if you feel it. There is a sense about this adobe that is very peaceful and very welcoming, and your whole blood pressure just kind of relaxes, your body relaxes. And everyone says that. All the tourists we take through say, 'This is wonderful.'"

But it wasn’t always wonderful. Workers used a lot of elbow grease to fix up the adobe during its first restoration nearly 30 years ago. This time around, they had to remove some of those old restorations to try to get the adobe to look like it did in the late 1800s.

Delcamp says the 1981 restoration put seismic posts in the corners of the rooms, which were pretty obvious.

"We were able to remove those and we put all of the seismic strengthening in the attic space above the ceiling, so you don’t see it anymore," she says. "It’s still there – provides the strength that’s needed for the building code and all of the structural calculations, but it doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the adobe."

And Delcamp says she hopes the latest renovations, paid for with about $200,000 in city park funds, will help the Montanez Adobe last another 200 years.

One thing she says it still needs, though, is volunteers. The adobe is only open during weekend walking tours of the neighborhood or by special arrangement. With more volunteers, they’re hoping they can keep the adobe open longer hours, so more people can see it.