We met at San Juan Capistrano City Hall to take a city tour, but not the rambling Los Rios Street treks tourists make. This was the Roy Nunn tour, a giant loop around town to see where this prolific architect has left his mark.
Serra Plaza is only a block away, at Del Obispo Street and Paseo Adelanto. Nunn designed it as a possible replacement for the current, old, prefabricated City Hall. But it became a regular office building instead with a Goldilocks just-right-size courtyard – a “municipal” courtyard as Nunn puts it – so nice, that it has become a very active wedding venue. He purposely juxtaposed arches with very square details and gave it “a lot of little spots and openings.”
Now those features are the backdrop of wedding photos for hundreds of couples.
The substantial bus shelters along Camino Capistrano are the next stop along the tour. Nunn said that despite designing dozens and dozens of projects, he may have received the most accolades for the bus shelters, including the “mother of all bus stops” at Camino Capistrano and La Zanja.
“That was one of my prides. They’re set in nicely with the scale of the city,” Nunn said. The city even received an award for the shelters.
Next up, we drove the cul-de-sac that is Verdugo Street where the building formerly known as Vaquero West is undergoing a major overhaul Nunn designed.
Across the street from the Regency and now called Paseo de Verdugo, a winery plans to move into the space, which may surprise residents with its shape – or lack thereof, Nunn said.
“It’s literally just a box. There’s not a lot of ornamentation. They’re going to say, ‘It’s just a box,’ but that’s all it ever was,” he said.
On our way to Camino Health Center on the north side of town, we also drive by the Benninghoff law building (at 31411 Camino Capistrano, whose namesake has a notorious past), yet another of Nunn’s work. Camino Health, however, is one of Nunn’s babies. The challenge was to come up with something on a “banana-shaped” lot and he’s thrilled with the outcome.
Heading across to the other side of the I-5, we passed the new 7-Eleven on Junipero Serra Road. Yep, one of Nunn’s. We arrived at Fluidmaster, the one Nunn would select if you forced him to choose his very favorite.
He designed the arcade, the structure in the front, to not only denote the entrance but to also fire the senses. There are metallic water falls on the back of the pillars facing the building. Considering that Fluidmaster makes parts for toilets, the water feature was a natural fit, Nunn said.
He calls the resulting look “Spanish eclectic.”
“It reflects the mission architecture but doesn’t copy it. I’m trying to build architecture that fits in with the community,” Nunn said. “You want to be able to identify the old from the new.”
The next stop was Rancho Ortega Plaza, which gets its names from its cross streets: Ortega Highway and Rancho Viejo Road.
“This is a very big splash of color,” Nunn said. With the colorful tiles and the brightly painted walls -- that is the achievement in itself, getting people away from a limited palette for what are considered Spanish/Mediterranean buildings.
“Some don’t believe color is a part of architecture,” Nunn said, begging to differ. “This is retail. It’s across the freeway (from the Mission). It can be a little different.”
We then passed St. Margaret’s Episcopal School’s preschool and gym, and though we didn’t make the U-turn, Nunn pointed to the daycare center built next to Ambuehl Elementary. Both his.
We made our way to Capistrano VW, where Nunn designed the newer building to mesh with the older building, both having that mid-century modern vibe. Because Nunn has worked for franchises and corporations – including Wendy’s and a now-defunct fish restaurant chain – he understands the constraints put on recent proposals for McDonald’s and Del Taco, whose corporate marching orders have clashed with city leaders’ vision for San Juan Capistrano.
“San Juan provides specific guidelines. If they follow it, they’re not going to have problems with it,” Nunn said. Then again, things may get difficult if they are “trying to fit a size 9 foot in a size 6 shoe.”
We head back to City Hall. There were three projects we couldn’t see – because they’re not yet built yet. The Plaza Banderas Hotel, to be built where the old Mission Inn was razed; the controversial Darmal residence, a modern-looking private home approved for a prominent hillside overlooking the I-5 and coastline; and, an addition to the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library. Yes, it was designed by famed architect Michael Graves but Nunn designed a bookstore annex now under construction.
“We tried to respect his design. It didn’t violate any of the design features,” said Nunn, who had to submit his design to Graves.
As much as the library is loved, the Darmal house may be hated. Nearby residents protested it every step of the way, saying it looked too much like an office building next to their California-Mediterranean-style homes.
But Nunn says private residences shouldn’t have to conform to a specific style. It’s the man’s-home-is-his-castle adage.
“San Juan should not be made up of all the Santa Barbara look or all the San Clemente look,” Nunn said.
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