If area Native Americans and early Spanish settlers are responsible for most of what you think of when you hear the words “San Juan Capistrano,” then one man is largely responsible for all the rest.
Not every building can be a 200-year-old relic. So what to do about building something new? More than any other one person, property owners call upon architect Roy Nunn, whose body of work spans San Juan Capistrano north to south.
We’re talking everything from St. Margaret’s Episcopal School’s preschool building to business complex-turned-wedding venue Serra Plaza to quaint bus shelters to Fluidmaster to a Capistrano VW addition. And that’s not even half of it.
“I come from a belief that architecture in San Juan should reflect history, it should not copy history,” Nunn said. People should be able to tell the two apart.
That vision is perfectly encapsulated at Serra Plaza, next to the Bank of America building on Del Obispo Street, said former City Councilman Ken Friess, a longtime friend of Nunn’s. The two have worked on many projects together.
“There’s a day that’s going to come 100 years from now when people are going to come visit [Serra Plaza] like they do today for the Mission and the library,” Friess said. “You can lose yourself in that building.”
Beyond what he designs as an architect Nunn is three-stint member of the Planning Commission, extending his influence in the mid-1980s, then in the ’90s and again since 2011 to tweak projects to meet city guidelines better.
That’s not to say he makes developers bend to his aesthetic. Nunn said there’s been plenty he’s approved that he would design differently. But he’s nudged the city in certain directions just the same.
Take color. Spanish/Mediterranean is full of color, Nunn said. But San Juan Capistrano wasn’t.
His first battle over color took place as a young architect. His firm assigned Nunn the design of the St. Margaret’s Early Childhood Center, which he planned as a traditional Spanish courtyard. But it’s for kids. Small ones at that, so he proposed primary colors for the doors. That couldn’t be seen from the street.
The initial reaction from city leaders was no.
But Nunn presented numerous photos of authentic Spanish buildings in bright colors and eventually won them over … only to have a similar battle years later over his plans for the Rancho Ortega Plaza strip mall (home of Tannins and the Ortega Car Wash).
Always dressed in a Hawaiian shirt to show the world he’s got that sunny, “aloha” attitude, Nunn has struggled with much more than the pitch of a roofline or superfluous design details. In his 64 years, he has stared down a deadly form of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, heart problems and more recently a hernia.
Born in Bakersfield, raised in Lakewood, Nunn’s mom was told there was something wrong with her elementary-aged son because he drew people who actually looked like people. In high school, he thought he’d put those artistic inclinations to work in drafting class.
He got sidetracked, however, when he thought for just a moment in time, he’d like to pursue aeronautical engineering. Crashing college grades after graduating high school with honors changed all that. He dropped out of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and headed south again, this time to San Juan Capistrano.
“I had a friend living down here. It was a lot like San Luis Obispo. We had the hills and we had the mission and that quaint town feel,” he said.
Nunn enrolled in Saddleback College, got his GPA back up and went to Cal State Fullerton to become an architect. He knew he wouldn’t make the same kind of money as aeronautical engineering, but it suited him. He fell in love and had a son, then a daughter.
It’s the same roller coaster ride Nunn took with his health.
The Hodgkin’s lymphoma struck at 40, when “I walked the edge of the grave.” At 50, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“It sneaks up on you,” Nunn said. “It comes like a ghost through the backdoor.” It took a while for doctors – he went to several – to find the right cocktail of drugs. “It cost me my business. I couldn’t finish projects on time. I lost clients. My whole life went into molasses.”
Nunn went into a depression until he was put on the right prescription regimen. But it was too late. He had lost his business, moved what work he could get back to a home office and declared bankruptcy.
He presses on.
Displaying his “aloha” attitude – which means he stays positive at least 80 percent of the time – Nunn notes with his rental home he finally has the ocean view his wife always wanted.
He doesn’t tell Patch, but Friess reveals Nunn continues to coach girls soccer, as he has for 30 years.
Friess calls Nunn “a personal hero” who only sees the good in … everything.
“He gets whacked by life and he just gets up,” Friess said. “The guy doesn’t quit.”
Nunn is much more humble.
“I say I’m trying to walk down the hill and trying not to slide. I’m still able to function, and I’ve rediscovered my artistic side,” Nunn said. Now, whether he’s waiting to pull permits in some long city hall line or waiting to see a doctor, he gets out his tablet and paints.
He’s also released one children’s book and is working on a second. Since the first was about a dog, it’s only fair the second feature a cat.
- Take the tour of Roy Nunn’s architecture in San Juan Capistrano
- Get Roy Nunn’s opinions about the development review process in San Juan Capistrano
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