Renowned Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska swept into Orange County more than 100 years ago, bestowing on it her international fame and leaving a deep imprint on its history.
But now, after serving as a source of community pride for a century, Modjeska's elegant home has become a thorny source of contention in the canyon community that bears her name.
County plans to open the home to the public in 1991 have prompted fears of bustling traffic and boisterous wedding parties in an area that prides itself on its isolation. A fierce coalition of independent oldtimers and anti-establishment settlers are sharply opposed to the county's plans, which will be unveiled in detail at a special meeting Thursday.
"Emotions have been running high with some residents, that's true," acknowledged Kathie Matsuyama, senior landscape architect for Orange County and project coordinator for the Modjeska home. "But we look at every public meeting as a chance to communicate, and we're hoping this one will do that."
Many residents are openly skeptical. In particular, some residents are irritated by the county's plans for operating the home, once structural repairs are finished and it opens to the public, probably in 1991. The county has indicated that it may allow weddings, receptions and other events to take place on the grounds, and residents of the 180-home village in the shadow of Modjeska Peak won't hear of it.
"Maybe it's unrealistic, but that's why we came out here, to get away from that traffic," said Elena Grant, who moved to Modjeska Canyon a year ago. "With less than 180 households here, they're saying they'll give out licenses to bring in 150 people for receptions, so we're looking at almost doubling our population."
Grant, who describes herself as a moderate among the town residents, nevertheless bristles at the intrusion on her quiet town, a place she has been visiting since she was 5 years old.
"We always thought that the big nemesis would be a developer, not the county," she said.
Madame Modjeska's home has not always been so controversial, but it has long been noticed. Modjeska, a native of Poland and the premier Shakespearean actress of her time, entertained internationally known luminaries in the sprawling bungalow's heyday. Designed by Stanford White, one of America's foremost architects, the building is said to emulate architecture of the East Indies, most notably in its open porches at both ends. It is the only standing home built by White west of the Missouri River.
Despite the recent tussle with the county, most residents grudgingly admit that the county did them a favor by buying the house in the first place. In 1986, when the county stepped in with $1 million to buy the mansion, it was badly decayed. In addition to the purchase price, the county invested $320,000 to do emergency repairs, which are still under way.
The good feeling from the county's help does not carry over very far these days, however, given the current escalating war of words.
Throughout Modjeska Canyon, residents are quick to offer their opinions. Some have threatened to chain themselves to trees to block county work crews and others already are investigating legal action.
Almost all of them appear to agree on this: They don't want more traffic and they don't want their town's serenity to trail away in a blur of boisterous, drunken wedding receptions, as they put it. They further claim that noise reverberates in steep Modjeska Canyon, making any intrusion a noticeable one.
"We moved up here because we aren't Mission Viejo people," said Christine Jensen, a three-year resident. "It's so relaxing and peaceful. The air quality is much better, and the whole atmosphere is different."
Indeed, Modjeska Canyon seems an unlikely place to stumble upon a rebellion. The Modjeska home itself, surrounded by thick groves of sycamores, oaks and conifers, is set back and almost invisible from the road. A bird sanctuary at the top of Modjeska Canyon Road, a narrow two-lane street with nary a car at mid-day, adds to the gentle stir of wildlife.
Even the constant hammering or occasional whiff of paint fumes from the renovations in progress do little to rattle the town's quiet simplicity.
Until the brouhaha arose over the Modjeska home, about the biggest issue facing Modjeska Canyon was getting enough folks to staff the volunteer fire department.
Times have changed.
"We think the use the county wants is inappropriate," said Dr. Greg Bates, a chiropractor who heads the Modjeska Residents Assn. "It looks like the county hasn't listened to anything we've said."
Bates and Jim Sills, another association official, have spent the past several days urging town residents to attend Thursday's meeting. At that session, the county will present residents with its tentative design and operation plans. Although the county expects little opposition to the design, officials admit that there are still differences over the best way to best manage operations, especially traffic.
"Of course they're right to be concerned about it," Matsuyama said. "I'm concerned about it."
Matsuyama added that the county has prepared several suggestions for holding down traffic when the home opens to the public. On-site parking will be free, she said, a move intended to keep visitors from parking along public streets. If overflows occur, the county is prepared to bus visitors in from an off-site parking lot, she added, and buses also may be required for wedding parties or other groups that receive permits to use the grounds.
"We don't have a crystal ball, but we are very interested in working with the residents," Matsuyama said.
The question seems to be how willing residents are to work with the county. Thursday's meeting, most say, will do much to chart the future of the canyon community sitting at the foot of Saddleback.
"It's going to be a hot one," Bates said. "We're hoping that there will be enough people in a sane-enough mind to talk to the county. Most of all, we're hoping people don't just get mad and leave."