Amid South County’s Tracts, Some Gems of Architecture

Los Angeles Times. Epstein. December 1998 ...

Never mind the cookie-cutter tract housing of so many South County developments. The area offers several landmark examples of contemporary architecture such as San Juan Capistrano’s sleek, modern Museum of Architecture. Take a trip to South County to celebrate the postmodern city library’s 15th anniversary Saturday. Then enjoy a break at a handsomely designed restaurant–the Chart House in Dana Point.


Los Angeles architect John Lautner (1911-1994) designed Alto Capistrano as headquarters for a planned community that was never built. The building, the site of a new Museum of Architecture, and grounds pay homage to Lautner’s teacher and lifelong friend, Frank Lloyd Wright. Note the cantilevered deck and ceiling overhangs, bricks uncut at angled corners, walls of glass mitered at the ends; such elements were unheard of before Wright.

Lautner in turn was known for innovations in concrete and glass. Among his best-known projects were the flying saucer-shaped Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills, his Googies coffee shops in Los Angeles and the expansive Bob Hope residence in Palm Desert.

At Alto Capistrano, which served as a dental office and insurance agency before falling into disrepair in the 1980s, expansive sliding glass doors hang from above with no lower track, and hexagons provide an organic motif. A cantilevered “waterfall” cascades to a pond where dragonflies and an egret make their home.

Museum founding director Robert Imber took a leave of absence from his telemarketing post at the Philharmonic Society of Orange County to pursue his vision for a facility dedicated to architecture and related design fields.

Among several current exhibits, “Wallace Cunningham: Houses” features models of five residences including the San Diego-based architect’s striking “The Bird.” Stained glass in a variety of styles documents the work of the historic Judson Studios of Los Angeles. “The Architecture of Collaboration” uses nifty balsa wood models and photographs to spotlight Los Angeles-based Katherine Diamond’s best work, including the air traffic control tower at LAX.

Of more local interest, artifacts from Lautner’s unrealized Alto Capistrano project make up “Lost and Found”; “Richard Neutra in Orange County” cites several structures at Orange Coast College.

Now open by appointment, the museum seeks volunteer docents so that regular hours can be posted by January. On Jan. 15, Helene Arahuete, Lautner’s only associate architect, presents a slide lecture, “Continuing the Legacy.”

What drew upon many influences has influenced many: The postmodern architecture of the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library has even trickled down to local malls. Architect Michael Graves freely mixed ancient, classic and contemporary elements at the library; it seems like a fantasy fortress on the outside, like a cathedral, with clerestory windows and pillars, on the inside.

Graves speaks Saturday at 2 p.m. at the new agriculturally inspired San Juan Capistrano Community Center (25925 Camino del Avion, [949] 496-7400, $10 per person). Irvine-based architectural firm LPA designed the center.


Architect Joe Lancor’s curvilinear teak-and-concrete Chart House is perched high on a bluff above Dana Point Harbor. Views are dramatic.

Enter via a “crow’s nest” and winding staircase. Surfing photos dot the walls inside. The restaurant is known for its elaborate salad bar, included with all entrees or available a la carte ($12.95). Entrees (about $18-$40) include grilled steaks, prime rib and seafood dishes such as lobster tails and ginger-citrus shrimp.


1) Museum of Architecture

34000 Via de Agua, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-5288.

By appointment 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

2) San Juan Capistrano Regional Library

31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. (949) 493-1752.

10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

3) Chart House

34442 Street of the Green Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 493-1183.

5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Parking: There is free parking in lots at the museum and library, and valet parking at the restaurant.

Buses: OCTA Bus No. 1 (Long Beach-San Clemente) runs along Pacific Coast Highway with stops at Street of the Green Lantern in Dana Point and Camino Las Ramblas in San Juan Capistrano. Buses No. 397 (Mission Viejo-San Clemente) and 91 (Laguna Hills-San Clemente), and Amtrak, serve the San Juan Capistrano Train Depot (near the library). Bus No. 91 also runs along Del Obispo Street with stops at Camino Capistrano, Pacific Coast Highway and Camino Las Ramblas.