Osuna Adobe a significant piece of Rancho Santa Fe’s history

The Osuna Adobe: After it was remodeled by Lilian Rice it was used in early advertisements for Rancho Santa Fe.
The Osuna Adobe: After it was remodeled by Lilian Rice it was used in early advertisements for Rancho Santa Fe.

(Courtesy RSF Historical Society)

Rancho Santa Fe is home to one of the oldest historic adobes in California, tucked onto the Rancho Santa Fe Association-owned Osuna Ranch property on Via De Santa Fe.

At the Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society’s Coffee in the Courtyard speaker series on Aug. 20, historian Vonn Marie May told the story of how the historic Osuna adobe was saved twice: first in 1906 and again in 2006, when it was purchased by the Rancho Santa Fe Association. In 2017, the Osuna was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“The rarity of this is so critical,” said May, author of “Rancho Santa Fe (Images of America)”. “This is our California history and we need to preserve it.”

The adobe sits where it has since circa 1831, on the property once known as the 8,824-acre Rancho San Dieguito provisional land grant. Juan María Osuna, the first alcade (mayor) of San Diego obtained ownership of the grant in 1836 as a place to raise his two daughters, six sons, horses and cattle for tallow and hide.

He remodeled the original two-bedroom adobe and built a second adobe closer to the San Dieguito River as a residence for him and his wife Juliana, known as Osuna 2 main house (located on today’s Via De La Valle).

The first adobe became the home of Osuna’s son Leandro, who served as ranch manager.

When California became a state in 1850, Rancho owners had to prove their land ownership and Juliana took up the fight after her husband’s death, “She did everything in her power to keep the land for her and her children,” May said.

She eventually secured the deed in 1871 and died shortly afterward.

May said Leandro had clashed with the local Native Americans and treated them terribly. When he fell sick, he was convinced that they had poisoned him and instead of suffering, died by suicide in the adobe, adding a bit of haunted history to the property.

By the time the Santa Fe Railway acquired the Osuna property in 1906, the adobe had fallen into disrepair. May said to their credit, the railroad company did not raze the structure.

May said the Santa Fe Railway planted three million eucalyptus trees from 1906 through 1912, meant to produce railway ties, but abandoned the project in 1916. The railroad established the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company to create a residential community —they used Osuna 2 as their corporate offices and hired architect Lilian Rice to remodel the original adobe.

An excellent designer and structuralist, May said Rice “romanticized” the design of the adobe in 1924, adding a barrel tile roof, a kitchen, bathroom, a fireplace, and an enclosed porch and garden in the back of the home. The well even had a little tile roof.

An aerial of the Osuna adobe in 1928, adjacent to the Loomis Stables. Via De La Valle and Via De Santa Fe are visible.
(Courtesy RSF Historical Society)

“Because the eucalyptus experiment had failed, Rancho Santa Fe became their recovery project,” May said. The adobe reimagined by Rice was used in their advertisements for land sales. “If the rich heritage of romantic Spanish tradition in California appeals to you, come see Rancho Santa Fe. If prices elsewhere seem like kings’ ransoms, buy your homesite here”, read a 1925 sales pitch for Rancho Santa Fe.

In the 1930s, the adobe was home to the Clotfelter family, who are still involved in Rancho Santa Fe real estate to this day.

Bing Crosby and his wife Dixie purchased Osuna 2 and owned it from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. The adobe still stands, on privately owned property.

“The second saving (of the adobe) was exactly 100 years later,” May said of the Association’s 2006 purchase. “This was huge because this little guy just sat there.”

The Association bought the 28-acre property for $12 million with the goals to prevent subdivision, protect the open space and preserve the historic adobe.

There was community debate over the period of significance of the adobe, which the then-Association board eventually settled on as 1860. As part of restoring the adobe back to the American period, all of Rice’s 1920’s additions were removed except for the tile roof and the living room and its fireplace. May said she had fought hard for the Santa Fe and Rice period as the most significant: “Had Santa Fe not come to this area, that adobe would be gone,” she said.

In 2012 the Association completed an adobe restoration, repairing the wooden lintels and removing all of the electrical panels and wiring that obstructed the entire side of the home.

The Association’s Osuna Committee hopes to kick off restoration efforts again this year and continue promoting use of the site to the community. The property is always open for members to visit the open space park and walk through the adobe; the Celebrate Osuna community event is expected to be held again this November.

“It needs to have more people come and see it,” May said, hoping more locals can be introduced to the piece of historic heritage right in their backyard, the primary inspiration for Rancho Santa Fe’s community character marketed back in 1927 as “The Endless Miracle of California.”

The RSF Historical Society’s final speaker event of the year will be held on Friday, Sept. 17 with Ranch resident and RSFHS member Fred Grand, presenting “Rancho Santa Fe the First 7,000 Years: Pre-Historic Times to Rancho San Dieguito.” Tickets are $15 for current RSFHS members and $20 for non-members, available online at Inquiries can also be made at RSFHS or by calling (858) 756-9291.