What are the most important buildings in Orange County—the most historic, architecturally significant, and the most beautiful? What built spaces and public places make us unique?

These are the questions Blue Door Magazine is exploring as we tour Iconic OC.

The origin story of Orange County is set at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The Mission is a place both sacred and secular, where indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, American, and Californian people lived, built, worked, prayed, served, suffered, mourned, and died. 

One could say that the Mission San Juan Capistrano is the oldest designed space that exists in Orange County, though that would ignore the world and the people here before the Spanish. The Acjachemen believe they have lived here since the beginning of time, while archaeologists have documented the people’s presence for 10,000 years, in village sites from the mountains to the coast. 

Twenty-one California Missions were established by the ruling Spanish kingdom from 1769 through 1823 as a means of providing control over the area and its indigenous peoples, thus converting them to Catholicism. The seventh mission was Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776. The Acjachemen were induced to work at the Mission and become Catholics. The converts became known as the Juaneño. The Juaneño built the mission structures and residences and performed all the labor. 

Mission San Juan Capistrano and Orange County environs.
Photographed by Henry F. Withey, June 1936.

Drawing detail of Old Stone Church, roof over sanctuary, looking north, 1936.

The photographs and drawings in this story are from The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), established in 1933 to create a public archive of America’s architectural heritage. HABS was just one of many cultural New Deal programs initiated during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that offered relief to the unemployed during the Great Depression while at the same time enriching American life both materially and culturally. Within weeks of receiving its approval, hundreds of the unemployed architects were in the field recording for HABS. The HABS collection represents “a complete resume of the builder’s art,” ranging “from the smallest utilitarian structures to the largest and most monumental.” 

A small adobe chapel, called Father Serra’s Church, was constructed at the Mission in 1788. Construction of the Great Stone church began in 1796 and was completed in 1806; the building measured 180 feet in length by 40 feet wide and included a massive bell tower that extended 120 feet tall. 

Of the 21 California missions established in the 18th and 19th centuries, San Juan Capistrano was the only one built from stone. Access to stone permitted European-inspired dome or vaulted roof construction that could span wide naves. This construction required thick exterior walls, and even buttresses, to support the outward thrust of the heavy roofs. 

Stone Church, roof over sanctuary, looking north, Photographed by Henry F. Withey, June 1936.  

Mission San Juan Capistrano, plot plan, perspective view, circa 1936. The Historic American Buildings Survey.

By 1812, 3,340 persons had been baptized at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, and 1,361 Juaneños resided in the compound. Four bells were cast between 1796 and 1804, and were used to summon parishioners to their daily duties. On December 8, 1812, the bells tolled, calling the faithful to the early morning mass. 

During the service, an earthquake shook. The mortar in the church walls failed, the bell tower swayed and collapsed. Forty people, including two children, died. According to Mission records, the victims were predominantly women: 25 married, four widows, two single. The male dead included four married, three single, and one child. A few months later, the husband of one of the victims, “lost his reason from either fright or grief,” according to a contemporaneous report. “His lifeless body was found in the woods (en el bosque) and buried in the cemetery on May 8, 1813.” Some 2,000 Juaneños are now buried there. 

Serra Chapel interior, Mission San Juan Capistrano. Photographed by Henry F. Withey, June 1936. The 1788 Serra Chapel is the only remaining California Mission Church where Father Serra is known to have celebrated sacraments.

The Great Stone Church was never rebuilt. In 1812, the rate of Juaneños who died surpassed the amount of those who were baptized. By 1834, the Juaneño population had declined to about 800.

The Great Stone Church ruins have been stabilized and preserved over the decades, including a 17-year, $9.6-million restoration project completed in 2004. Steel rods and pins hold walls together, and a steel buttress was installed inside the vestry to reinforce its dome. Low stone walls were built to show how far the original structure once reached. 

Today, Mission San Juan Capistrano is a destination for the devoted, the architecturally inspired, and the historically intrigued, as well as thousands of school children on field trips. When walking the ruins of the Great Stone Church, take time to remember those who built it, and those who perished when it fell.  

Drawings and photos of doorways from sacred garden to padre’s house and to sacristy, circa 1936. The Historic American Buildings Survey. 

Mission San Juan Capistrano | 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano | 949.234.1300 |

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