The Frank A. Forster mansion was built in 1910 and is on the City’s Inventory of Historic and Cultural Landmarks. This mansion is located on the Ortega Highway between the Capistrano Inn and the shopping center to the east. A beautiful mansion that was restored to its old glory by famous interior designer Martha Gresham who once owned it. Later she sold the house and it’s being loving preserved by present owners internationally famous photographer Phillip Stewart Charis and his wife Maryanne .
Frank Forster was the grandson of Don Juan Forster who once owned the Mission and one of the largest ranches in California. Like most of Frank’s family, he was a successful rancher and lived in a small home on the site but decided to build a mansion for his family. He had Train & Williams, an architectural firm from Los Angeles, design a Mission Revival Style home. Its first floor is solid reinforced concrete with a large basement. The second floor is wood framed with plaster. The house was the first stucco covered home built in this area. This mansion has 6000 sq. ft. of living space which includes a large gracious living room that has a massive rock fireplace built from rocks that came from Salt Creek in South Laguna. Originally the house had gas lighting throughout. It also became the social hub of this area with extravagant BBQ’s and piano recitals. The total cost was only $10,000.
After Frank and his wife Ada passed away, the house was left to their son and three daughters. One daughter, Alice Forster Leck, lived there quite a while and left the house to her nephew Pancho Forster. The house began to decline and was sold to Bill Reid and Nario Iwata for $125,000 in 1975. By 1983 the house had deteriorated, but Martha Gresham came to the rescue, negotiated with Reid and bought it for $625,000. Ms Gresham restored the house to its original glory and it became a premier site to visit. Much later she sold the house to the Charis family who have faithfully retained its rich beauty. They lived in the house for a time, then created the House of Photographic Art. In the adjacent shopping center, they maintained their photography studio. This house is the last of the truly elegant homes built here just before and after 1900.
The Forster Mansion is also famous for one of the delightful legends that abound in our historic old village. It has a ghost! Billy Reid use to tell about the cigar smoking ghost who visited him. He believed it came from the old cemetery located across the street on the hill. He often smelled the cigar smoke and would hear doors opening and slamming upstairs. But Ms. Gresham told more expansive stories. She was a bit of a physic and said she had seen the ghost quite often and gave him the name of George. He was described as being short, stubby, had a moustache, and wore khaki clothing. He was always happy and friendly but smelled of cigars which she abhorred. She believed that he may have been one of the original builders. During the restoration work, contractors found a petrified cigar stub behind a plaster wall which Ms. Gresham kept.