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Hidden Treasure : County Renovation of Historic Modjeska Canyon Home Leads to a Series of Surprising Discoveries

Dan Logan is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Shakespeare didn’t have palm trees and California live oaks in mind when he imagined the forest in “As You Like It.” Yet when Polish actress Helena Modjeska settled in a wooded canyon bordering Santiago Creek in 1888, she declared its quiet groves her own Forest of Arden.

Today, more than a hundred years later, Modjeska Canyon remains rural and isolated, dead silent between the sporadic rasp of power saws from building crews on the hill and the whistle of occasional jets passing overhead. A black pygmy goat named Shadow and his dog pal, Bear, gambol about the grounds of Modjeska’s one-time home.

The Modjeska property has proved to be a historical laboratory that has yielded surprises and continuing puzzles. Although Modjeska and her husband, Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski (who preferred to be called Mr. Bozenta), were the home’s most famous owners, the site played a significant role in Orange County history both before and after their time.

Two recent events have focused attention on Modjeska and her Orange County years. First, Richard Hellesen’s play “Once in Arden,” which will be performed at South Coast Repertory April 20 through May 24, looks at Modjeska near the end of her acting career.

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Second, the county is revitalizing the Modjeska house and its 14.4-acre grounds, which the county purchased in 1986 for $1 million from the Walker family of Long Beach. Late next year, it will open a new Modjeska Historic Park, the focal point of which will be the white bungalow where Modjeska and Bozenta lived when they weren’t traveling around the country on one of Modjeska’s demanding acting tours.

Modjeska was considered one of the great actresses of her time, on a par with Sarah Bernhardt. She came to the United States as an unknown and built a reputation on the American stage as a fine Shakespearean actress.

She was also something of a free spirit.

She and her manager, Gustave Sinnmayer Modrzejewski--whose anglicized name she used in her career--had two children before she left him in 1865, when she was 25.

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She and Bozenta, who also became her manager, came to the United States in 1876, during the country’s centennial. They and a small group of friends attempted to set up a farming commune in Anaheim, says Ellen K. Lee, a South Laguna resident and Orange County historian who has researched Modjeska for more than 20 years.

The effort failed miserably.

To raise money, Modjeska went to San Francisco, studied English and began a career on the American stage that lasted 30 years.

From all accounts, Modjeska and Bozenta were energetic, gregarious people. Modjeska loved the theater, art and music. Bozenta was a high-strung, talkative intellectual from an aristocratic Polish family. They enjoyed entertaining and were generous with their attentions and their money. “Both Modjeska and Bozenta had a great gift for friendship,” says Lee.

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One of Bozenta’s friendships was with Joseph Pleasants, a highly regarded ranch manager. His wife, Maria Refugio, was a member of a wealthy Mexican family. In the early 1870s, the Pleasantses homesteaded a 160-acre parcel in Santiago Canyon--in what is now Modjeska Canyon--and raised cattle and bees.

Modjeska and Bozenta were frequent visitors to the Pleasantses’ small cabin in the canyon. Bozenta loved the backcountry, and he and Pleasants often went riding and hunting. In 1883, Bozenta bought a half interest in the parcel, although he and Modjeska were also building two houses in Poland at the time, according to Lee. However, in 1886 they decided that California would be their home. In 1887 they purchased the remaining share, possibly because Maria Refugio had tuberculosis and the Pleasantses wanted to move to the city.

The connection with the Pleasantses produced some surprises when the county began restoring the home. For most of the last 100 years, however, interest centered on the design of the house. In her memoirs, Modjeska stated that the house had been designed by Stanford White, an illustrious New York architect. For years, historians sought to confirm White’s involvement with the Modjeska home.

In 1989, the county hired Dr. Leland Roth to pursue the connection between White and Modjeska. Roth, a professor of art history at the University of Oregon, is an expert on the McKim, Mead & White architectural firm, and his catalogue of the firm’s work includes a reproduction of the Modjeska house.

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Roth says he discovered a short letter White wrote to Bozenta, discussing the glass for the house. There were also visual clues that Roth says persuaded him of White’s involvement even before the discovery of the letter. There’s the strong horizontal nature of the design, whereas Orange County architecture at the time favored the vertical Victorian style. The repetitive gables were also an unusual stylistic feature for the greater Los Angeles area of the period.

“There was a very definite connection between Modjeska and White, and he was consulted in some capacity on the design of the house. Exactly what that capacity was, we don’t know,” Roth says.

White, from the available evidence, never visited the site. Roth confirms that White designed only three residences that stood west of the Missouri River, and the Modjeska house is the only one remaining.

More important than the conclusions about White’s role was the discovery that an older structure was buried within the house.

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In the spring of 1989, Thirtieth Street Architects of Newport Beach began an emergency stabilization of the foundation of the house. The structure had a rock-rubble foundation that had gradually deteriorated over the years, says Kathie Matsuyama, senior landscape architect for the county’s Environmental Management Agency.

Architectural historian Roger Hatheway, an expert in cultural resource management, was called in to monitor the foundation work for any historically important artifacts that might be unearthed. At first, nothing very exciting turned up in terms of historical value, Hatheway recalls. But when several sections of baseboard were removed from the outside of the house, Hatheway’s assistant contacted him, telling him that they had uncovered what seemed to be a wall behind a wall.

Work shut down.

Hatheway spent a week on the site. He wormed his way around the shallow crawl space created by the contractors. Under the kitchen, he discovered wide redwood planks that didn’t follow the pattern of tongue-and-groove construction used in the rest of the house.

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It was known from old photographs that the Pleasantses’ cabin had been on the property. Hatheway suspected that the cabin had actually become part of the Modjeska house. Before long, he found that one wall of the Modjeska living room/library contained what was once a doorway to the Pleasantses’ cabin.

“The uncovered doorway matched to the inch the door in one of the early photographs of the cabin,” Hatheway says.

He established that the cabin was 70% to 80% intact in the walls of the house. He continued to strip away the wall. Beneath the outer layers, Hatheway found newspapers used as insulation. After photographing them in detail, he covered most of them up again, leaving a few exposed for visitors to examine. With a flashlight, a visitor can easily read odd bits from papers from 1879 and 1881. Lobster then was selling for 8 cents a pound, shrimp 25 cents.

After 1893, when a dining room was added to the house and the interior walls were sheathed, no one could have known the cabin was there, Hatheway says. He talked with members of the Walker family, and they told him that they had never suspected it.

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The inclusion of the Pleasantses’ cabin within the Modjeska home was a further clue that White had a hand in the house’s, Roth says, because beach cottages on the East Coast designed by McKim, Mead & White had also been built around earlier dwellings.

The center of the Modjeska home is the living room/library, Lee explains. Tall windows are mounted high on the north wall near the 16-foot cove ceiling. A large rock fireplace dominates the room. To the left of the fireplace, the initials HM are carved into the lid of a firewood box. In Modjeska’s day, a buffalo head hung over the fireplace.

The room is finished in redwood, although photos show that during Modjeska’s time the redwood was covered over with wallpaper. The couple had more than 2,000 books in several languages, and six-foot bookcases once lined walls that have since been opened up or have had windows installed. Paintings by famous Polish painters were hung high on the walls to show them to advantage in the natural light from the tall windows. The windows still have the original leaded glass.

Off a narrow hall, Modjeska’s and Bozenta’s bedrooms stand side by side, joined by a door. Both open onto a wide porch. Off the hall, there’s a third bedroom and a room for Modjeska’s costumes.

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The Modjeska house had indoor plumbing but no gas or electricity, says Dan Thomas, the Orange County park ranger who oversees the site. The kitchen underwent many changes, particularly in the two decades after Modjeska left to live the rest of her life in Newport Beach. Off the kitchen is Bozenta’s office, with a door to the outside that allowed men who worked the property’s livestock, beehives and olive grove to come in without having to go through the house.

The grounds around the home have elicited as much excitement as the house itself. The property is thick with California live oaks, redwoods, Jeffrey pines and California sycamores. Palm trees line what was once the main driveway. Old photographs show the palms were shoulder-high in 1890. Now they’re 70 feet tall. There’s a 120-foot cypress tree that is believed to be the tallest cypress in Orange County, according to park ranger Thomas.

Modjeska was proud of her garden, says Lee, particularly its roses, and the county’s restoration plan calls for reviving the garden.

Thomas he brought in Orange County jail trusties to clean up the overgrown vegetation in the garden and along the hillside last spring. Under the weeds, the inmate crews discovered a stone wall and a wooden staircase leading up to Bozenta’s 30-acre olive grove. Original walkways were still outlined with rocks.

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Over the years, Bozenta expanded his property until he owned more than 1,300 acres in the canyon, including the 40 acres of what is now the Harding Canyon Dam, Lee says. To supply Arden with water, Bozenta built a dam there in 1900-01. He piped the water down to the estate.

Immediately in front of the house is a well. Don Dobmeier, head of the Orange County Historical Commission, has a personal collection of post cards from the turn of the century that show Modjeska posing near the well, which was overgrown with rose bushes.

At each end of the house is a small concrete pond. A large, shallow swimming pool, distinctly kidney-shaped, lies near the creek to the west of the house. This was probably Orange County’s first swimming pool, says Matsuyama.

In addition to the main house, a half-dozen buildings still stand on the property. There’s a two-bedroom guest house to accommodate visitors who endured the 26-mile trip by horse-and-buggy from Anaheim. The original caretaker’s cabin sits atop a “cold house” where game and food may have been stored.

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One of the most curious of the structures on the property is the “Polish milk house,” a tiny turret of a building with a sweeping conical roof. Polish visitors have told Lee that it resembles a Polish shrine with its cross missing. Lee adds, however, that in one picture of Bozenta in his vegetable garden, the milk house is nearby, and she speculates that it was used to store tools and seeds.

By 1906, Modjeska was ill and in straitened financial circumstances. She and Bozenta left Arden for Bay Island in Newport Beach, where she spent the last three years of her life. Arden was purchased by a syndicate of investors from Long Beach, who formed the Modjeska Country Club, Lee recounts.

In 1913, the club was expanded into a resort. In 1916, Don H. Porter bought it and formed the Modjeska Ranch Co. to sell off building lots in the canyon. The company created a tent city near the bungalow, and a general store was built between the main house and the guest house. Prospective buyers would drive up to the canyon and stay in the tent city while they looked over the lots.

The house and the grounds next to it were sold to an Austrian couple, the Schweigers, in 1918. The Schweigers turned the house into the popular Modjeska Inn and Restaurant, but they gave up ownership in 1922.

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In 1923, banker Charles J. Walker, who had been one of the original country club investors, bought the home for his family’s use. The once-extensive estate that reached to Santiago Canyon Road and back into what is now Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary had dwindled to a few acres. Walker gradually purchased nearby parcels, ultimately building the estate back to its current 14.4 acres. Five generations of Walkers lived in or used the house over their 63-year ownership of it, Lee says. They built a large game room at the east end of the house, significantly increasing its size.

The Walkers maintained a zoo with monkeys, deer, peacocks, ostriches, a bear, an alligator (which was found downstream after a flood) and other wild animals on the property. The bear’s den, a flat-topped hole made out of rock, remains.

Matsuyama says she hopes that the home will be open to the public in late 1991. An environmental impact report is being completed and should go to the Board of Supervisors in the fall. Work on the house exterior is expected to be completed in the spring of 1991. Interior work and furnishing the house will take the rest of the year.

To date, the county has spent more than $400,000 refurbishing the home and its gardens, and the bill will reach more than $1 million before the park opens. The house has a new foundation, a fresh coat of paint, new electricity and plumbing, and well-braced chimneys. When it was re-roofed, workers found five layers of roofing, Hatheway says. New roofing has been applied over the older layers.

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The county’s plans for the park angered many nearby residents who argued that the narrow canyon road still lined with Bozenta’s olive trees was a playground for their children and animals. They said there was inadequate room for visitors to park their cars.

After a number of meetings last fall, a citizens’ advisory committee was formed, which helped resolve the conflicts, Matsuyama says. Each year, the committee will help the county evaluate how the park is operating.

To minimize the impact of the park on canyon residents, Matsuyama says, there will be no visitor parking near the Modjeska home. The county will run a shuttle, available by reservation only, into the canyon.

The starting point for public tours will be the white cottage, a small house across the creek from the Modjeska house. The white cottage will serve as an interpretive center, and there will be a small amphitheater for schoolchildren. A footbridge will cross Santiago Creek, leading to the Modjeska home.

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The restoration of the park buildings will continue for a number of years, Matsuyama says. Even then, the end may not be written to the story of the Modjeska home.

Throughout the world, there are bits and pieces of the Modjeska estate that could one day be returned to Modjeska Canyon for display. There may still be letters containing further clues as to why the Pleasantses’ home was enclosed within the Modjeska home.

It’s even possible that Stanford White’s plans for the house are still tucked away in an as-yet-undiscovered tube of architectural drawings.

SWIMMING POOL: Kidney-shaped, about four feet deep and 60 feet long, was the first known pool in Orange County

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GARDEN REVIVAL: Modjeska loved her rose garden, which was crossed by a gravel path marked with stones.

OLIVE GROVE: Count Bozenta would climb a flight of wooden steps to his olive grove, which covered 30 acres.

WELL: In front of house, drawing water from Santiago Creek. Post cards from turn of century show Modjeska posing against rose-covered wall.

WHITE COTTAGE: Will serve as interpretive center and parking area. Will be set near pond and walkways leading through grounds.

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MODJESKA HOUSE: Where Helena Modjeska asnd Count Bozenta lived, backs up to a hillside and stands in a thick grove of trees.

BEAR’S DEN: A flat-topped concrete hole in the ground is all that remains of the Walker family’s private zoo.

POLISH MILK HOUSE: This tiny building with its graceful conical roof has been moved around the property several times since the Modjeska era.

FOOT-BRIDGE: Will cross Santiago Creek, leading visitors from the white cottage to the Modjeskahome.

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MEADOW: A path will circle the large, open meadow so that visotors can stroll the quiet grounds. The meadow supports a surprising number of plant species, which will be identified for visitors.

STONE STAIRS: Will lead to an outlook over the meadow, where visitors will have a view of the surrounding hills.


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