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Life Lived – and Changed – In a Historic Home

A family prepares to move out of an historic house owned by the city, their lives forever changed for having lived there.

A little more than two years ago, the Cipriani family of Laguna Niguel saw a newspaper article that described a historic house for rent in San Juan Capistrano. That sounded fun, they thought.

It has changed their lives in ways they could not have imagined.

Now, they are packing, headed for a 5-acre avocado farm in San Diego County. From a Laguna Niguel tract to a gentleman’s ranch in two years.

All because they made a stop in San Juan Capistrano.

“We’ve become accidental farmers,” patriarch Jerry Cipriani said.

The Ciprianis have been living in what the city calls the Roger Y. Williams/Swanner House. It was built in 1923 and sits on the city’s , but you may know it best as the house with the (now-not-in-service) water tower across the road from the . The city took ownership in 1991.

For years, the City Council has talked about what to do with the property. It has batted around ideas, such as turning into a park ranger’s residence or a museum, possibly renting it to an animal rescue group or other nonprofit or to a private entity for wine tastings. .

But as the conversation ensued, the Williams/Swanner House remained what it’s always been, a home. In 2007, the city pumped more than $46,000 into it to get it ready to rent -- to the Ciprianis, a then-family of four (now five with the birth of a son) with a grandma in tow.

“Look at this storage. I love this house,” said Kari Cipriani, who offered Patch a walk-through.

The family marvels at all the little touches homebuilders today now neglect – the built-in shelves and book cases, the molding throughout, a cellar and fruit and nut trees galore. Then there are the features that belong to another era: the cupboard that was once an icebox, pull-out bins for sugar and flour storage, and common for the age before air-conditioning, small windows on internal walls – even closets – so that the entire house could get cross-circulation.

Isabella, a fourth-grader, and Natalie, a second-grader, both at across the freeway, especially wanted to show a reporter the cellar. This is the ultimate hide-and-seek house, Isabella said.

What Kari and Jerry mostly appreciated was space. From most windows, all they could see were lemon groves, wild mustard and an undeveloped – at least on the San Juan side – hill.

“There are a lot of cool contrasts,” Jerry said. “When you look at the back at night, it’s so dark. There are no lights. When you look out the front, the whole world is going by” on the Interstate 5.

The Ciprianis quickly became accustomed to having a little, or rather a lot, of space between them and the rest of the world.

That space was filled with nature. Two raccoons live in a shaggy palm tree on the property, Kari said. And when they first moved in, a family of swallows had nested in the crawl space. Because they’re protected, the family couldn’t move the birds. They had to wait until the baby birds were ready to take off on their own, she said.

“We did have a skunk who sprayed my mom’s dog,” Jerry said. “And the coyotes start hooping and hollering ever time a train goes by at night.”

With the prices of homes down so low, and with them the interest rates, the Ciprianis knew it was time to buy again. It was always part of the plan.

But what they hadn’t expected is where they would want to buy after living in their historic rental for two years, Jerry said. They couldn’t go back to close-quarters, tract-home living.

Just. Couldn’t. Do. It.

So they’ve found a 5-acre farm in Bonsall, east of Oceanside. On it, they have 250 avocado trees.

“It is time for us to buy, but we’re going to miss that house,” Jerry said.

He hopes that it ultimately is put to some public use that allows him to visit, perhaps an interpretive center or an event venue. Then he and his family will return and reminisce about the time the Williams/Swanner house was their house. 

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