Helena Modjeska’s Home to Benefit All

Helena Modjeska (1844-1909). A Polish actress born in Cracow, she began to act in 1860. In 1876 she came with her second husband, Count Bozente, to America. Her enormously successful American debut was at San Francisco in “Adrienne Lecouvreur” in 1877. She starred with Edwin Booth in 1889-90, and was thereafter considered one of the greatest actresses on the English-speaking stage. This was followed by transcontinental tours with Otis Skinner and Maurice Barrymore. She played Lady MacBeth, Cleopatra and Viola in Shakespeare’s plays. In 1905, a farewell testimonial was given at the Metropolitan Opera House.

--From “The Theatre Handbook”

by Bernard Sobel

A couple of things about Helena Modjeska that aren’t mentioned in this short biography is that in 1888 Madame Modjeska built a famous house in what was about to become Orange County. She and her husband built that house in Santiago Canyon to grow olive trees on 400 acres through which runs Santiago Creek. Their home was designed by the famous Eastern architect Stanford White, who had a reputation as quite a ladies’ man.


White was murdered in 1906 by Harry Thaw, a railroad millionaire, in front of Madison Square Garden, which he also designed. Thaw was angry because White had had an amorous affair with his wife, Evelyn Nesbit, a Gibson Girl, before Thaw married her.

According to local historian Ellen Lee, it is doubtful that White ever visited the Modjeska home. He designed it after the then-popular Colonial/Queen Anne style of wooden summer cottages on the East Coast. It is constructed of redwood, probably shipped by lumber schooner from Northern California.

The remarkable aspect of this (Lee calls it a “miracle”) is that the Modjeska home still stands virtually intact. What’s more, the home and grounds, once clear title is given, will become an official historical landmark and park owned by Orange County.

Credit for the home’s remarkable state of preservation lies with the Walker family of Long Beach. In 1923, Charles J. Walker bought the home and 16 acres of the once-extensive holdings. The Walker family has maintained the house, respecting its integrity and historical significance, for 63 years. “They were perfectly marvelous custodians,” enthuses Lee, who is hard at work on a history of Madame Modjeska in Orange County.

The Walker family has offered to sell the property to the county for $1 million, lower than its appraised value of $1.9 million. Prudently, they seek tax benefits for the difference. The Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks District, as the provider of recreation and historic facilities for our county, has now officially adopted the Modjekska home as a project in its five-year capital projects program.

The parks district has funds available for the purchase price, plus $500,000 for the property’s restoration and conversion into a regional historic park. All that remains now, according to Supervisor Bruce Nestande’s office, is the delivery of clear title, complicated by family trusts, from the Walker family. This the family is working on.

I share with Lee my excitement over the pending acquisition. It has been almost 60 years since I first visited the Modjeska home with my parents. Then there was a shallow swimming pool near the house, which some say was the first private swimming pool in the county. The pool is now overgrown, and Lee describes its present state as a grassy depression about four feet deep.

It was in that pool, along with a young namesake of Charles J. Wilson whom everybody called “Chuck,” that I learned to swim--after a fashion. Actually, Chuck and I discovered the joys of dog paddling. I recall we could touch bottom whenever we felt like it, and that lent our learning a sense of security.


But a little more about Modjeska. She sold her canyon home in 1906 to an interim party before the Walkers took over. She resided briefly in Tustin and then lived out the remainder of her life at No. 3 Bay Island in Newport Harbor. Madame Modjeska died there in 1909.

The great actress’s county roots actually extend back further than her canyon home. When she retired from the European stage, she arrived in Anaheim in 1876 and there, with a group of friends, formed a utopian Polish colony.