The Las Flores Adobe


The Las Flores adobe ranch house was constructed in the late 1860s for Marcos Forster and his bride on the land Marcos had chosen as a wedding gift from his father, John "Don Juan" Forster. John Forster, an Englishman, had inte­grated into the California's elite and became a wealthy ranchero. He owned 335 square miles of land, including the 125,000-acre Ran­cho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, now Marine Corps Base Camp Joseph H. Pendleton. Marcos chose the land where he administered his father's biannual roundups— the historic plain of Las Flores, the name he perpetuated in his home.

The name Las Flores was established in July of 1769, when members of the Portolà Expedition descended into a broad coastal plain as they blazed the El Camino Real through the dry hills of southern Cali­fornia. The men were astonished to find the plain covered with flowering vines and rosebushes. The padres called the region Las Flores (the flowers), and thus gave the area its permanent name.

Portolà and his men also found Native Americans living in circular, woven-brush dwellings in villages scattered along the coast. These natives, thesouthernmost lineage of the Shoshoni, inhabited the land from San Onofre to Agua Hedionda. The Las Flores Adobe lies near one of their villages, Ushmai.

Twenty-nine years later, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was founded fifteen miles to the south­east, along the El Camino Real. Its domain embraced 2,000 square miles of surrounding territory, including Las Flores. Near the village of Ushmai, the mission established an estancia known as "Rancho San Pedro" or "Las Flores." A typical estancia was a working rancho, with a chapel served by itinerant priests.

 By 1827 the Las Flores estancia consisted of a large, u-shaped complex measuring 142 by 153 feet, with granaries and a chapel with a forty-foot bell tower. The complex was undoubtedly built by native labor. Local natives raised wheat and barley for the mission on the fertile plain, and tended cattle in nearby Las Pulgas Canyon. In its heyday, the population of the Las Flores estancia numbered about 1,000. It was here that Juan Alvarado defeated the challenge to his governorship of Alta California in 1838. Nine years later, American troops under Kearny and Stockton stopped here on their way to seize Los Angeles, the Mexican capital of Alta California. Circa 1869, the estancia served as stables for the Las Flores changing station of the Los Angeles-San Diego stagecoach line. Now only crumbled remains are visible on a hill overlooking the Las Flores Adobe. 

When Mexico decided to secularize the California missions in 1833, some Native Americans remained in their Las Flores village, which was declared by the Mexican Government as a "pueblo libre," one of California's four experimental "free villages." The government restored land ownership to the native inhabitants of Las Flores.

In 1841 Pío and Andrés Pico received the largest land grant in California history, totalling 89,742 acres of land. Most of the land granted to the Pico brothers had been part of the mission's Rancho Santa Margarita, and was populated with 2,000 horses, 15,000 sheep, and 10,000 cattle. Then, in 1844, the Picos acquired Las Flores and its surrounding Indian land, effectively ending the "pueblo libre" experiment. The Pico's noted their acquisition in the expanded name of their rancho, Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.

Pío Pico, the last Mexican Governor of Alta California, and his brother Andrés, general of the Mexican army who signed the peace treaty with the Americans, lived lavish lifestyles and were avid gamblers. They often mortgaged land at exorbitant interest rates to pay their debts. In 1864 threats of foreclosure resulted in the sale of the entire Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores to their brother-in-law, Don Juan Forster. He expanded the Santa Margarita Ranch House into a princely, 8,500 sqft residence befitting the fabled ranchero and his love of week-long fiestas and dazzling rodeos.

Don Juan Forster died in 1882, leaving the Rancho, and a $207,000 mortgage, to his two sons. An 1879 guest of the Forsters described Marcos as "more Spanish than Anglo Saxon, a fine-looking, well-built man, with eyes of fire and a dash of a Spanish cavalier, but evidently of poor business ability." Within a year, financial difficulty forced Marcos to sell the Rancho for $450,000 to Nevada's "Silver King," James Flood. Flood's friend, Richard O'Neill, ran the Rancho and leased some of its land to tenant farmers, including the next residents of the Las Flores adobe, the Magees. Henry Magee had come to California with the army. He married Victoria de Pedrorena, descendent of two of San Diego's Old Town families, the Estudillos and de Pedrorenas. Two years after Victoria's death in 1886, O'Neill offered the vacant Las Flores adobe to Magee's motherless children. Las Flores would be the Magee home for the next seventy-nine years.

Magee's eldest daughter, Jane, never married and proved to be an astute business­woman as well as a surrogate mother to her brothers and sisters. She ex­panded the farm land to 3,000 acres. Under her management Las Flores became the largest lima bean pro­ducer in San Diego County, providing one-third of the state's crop.

She became respectfully known as Southern California's "Bean Queen." 

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. government acquired the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores for its West coast military train­ing base. When President Roosevelt came to inaugu­rate the new facility in 1942, he allowed the Magees to continue to live and farm at Las Flores as long as they were of Jane's generation. Jane retired in 1922 and lived at Las Flores until her death in 1946 at the age of eighty-three.

Jane's younger brother, Louis, managed Las Flores until he retired in 1962. He predeceased his wife Ruth, who died in 1968. After Ruth's death, Las Flores became uninhabited, and the historic adobe was saved from demolition at the last hour and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. The current restoration project began in 2003.

The inclusion of Las Flores on the National Register recognized not only her enviable role in early Southern California history, but also her singular place in early California architecture. Las Flores is a rare, two-story adobe ranch house in its original natural setting. The vast surrounding open space of hills and valleys enhances our understanding of the Las Flores Ranch House as the heart of a working ranch.

The National Register nomination study noted that Las Flores is also "an unusually full expression of the Hispanic California architectural tradition." The elegant formal ranchero residence exemplifies the Monterey Style of the developing ranchero economy, while the adjoining sin­gle-story wing embodies the Hacienda Style. An analysis of Las Flores and her peers revealed that the integration of these two styles and their related elements occurs only in Las Flores: "The individual elements of the house are found in various properties located throughout the state. The signifi­cance of Las Flores lies in the fact that the various compo­nents are arranged in a single structure and are unified archi­tecturally."

Las Flores' unrivaled design also fully interprets the "indoor-outdoor" living element with its veranda, open foyer, corridor, and central courtyard. This architectural concept profoundly influenced Clifford May, a Magee nephew who lived at Las Flores during the summers of his youth. May became the celebrated designer who originated the California ranch-house style. Crediting Las Flores as his inspiration, Cliff May established her ongoing legacy in the modern ranch house that has rapidly spread out of California as one of the basic styles used in suburban residential design.