Modjeska Home, Eatery Honeycombed With History

<i> Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Arden--Polish actress Helena Modjeska’s idyllic home and gardens--and another historical landmark, Cook’s Corner in nearby Trabuco, were both originally beekeepers’ quarters. But that’s where the similarities end.

9:40 to 11:40 a.m.: Arden was named for the forest setting in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” in which (according to Modjeska scholar Ellen K. Lee, whose video begins the tour) Modjeska played opposite Maurice Barrymore. The property, notes senior park ranger Dan Thomas, even had Arden’s lions and serpents, “the mountain lions and snakes.”

Helena Modrzejewska, a.k.a. Modjeska, moved to California with her husband, Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, who wasn’t really a count, in 1876. He wanted to be a farmer; she hoped for theatrical success in America. Their attempt at farming in Anaheim failed, but Modjeska learned English exceedingly quickly, and her career as a Shakespearean actress in San Francisco and New York was flourishing within a year.


During a visit to Santiago Canyon, the couple became enamored of beekeeper Joseph Pleasants’ homestead. They eventually bought the property, and in 1888 Pleasants’ simple cabin was incorporated intact into an elaborate five-gabled manor. According to Thomas, East Coast architect Stanford White never visited the property at all but did his drawings working from conversations with Madame Modjeska “right there at the society ball.”

The grounds now comprise 14 1/2 acres, but the working ranch once included more than 1,300. When the ranching venture failed, Polish pianist Jan Paderewski persuaded the couple to sell the property; Madame Modjeska died on Bay Island in Newport Beach in 1909.

The Walker family of Long Beach owned the site for more than 60 years. The county purchased it in 1986, and in 1990 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the only county site so designated besides the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

Less than half a dozen pieces of furniture in the home are original. The red window was purchased by Modjeska from either a “traveling Gypsy” or “Indian magician,” depending on your source, and, according to Thomas, sunlight filtering through it would supposedly rejuvenate one’s youth. At one post-Modjeska point in the home’s history, visitors were charged a dime to stand in front of it. (Nowadays, $3 confirms your reservation for the whole tour.)

The grounds boast the county’s largest grove of redwoods and the county’s first recorded plunge, “what we call a swimming pool,” Thomas said. The cobblestone pool is even kidney shaped, as would become fashionable half a century later. “And solar heated,” he noted.

The Walker family zoo was destroyed by flood. “There’s the bear den,” Thomas pointed out. “The Walkers took in a wandering minstrel’s sick bear, named Horatio. Turned out it was pregnant, so they changed the name from Horatio to Horatia. The flood had monkeys, llamas and an alligator strewn all down the canyon. They had a heck of time getting the alligator back.”

The home may or may not still have occupants.

Said Thomas: “As I was driving up one day, the person who installed the sprinkler system came out of the house white as a ghost himself and said, ‘There’s something in there with me. There’s no way I’m going back in that house.’ He said he felt a cold draft around him and heard strange noises, got in his truck and left. One of our own workers, a grounds person, refused to come back because he said he felt something cold around him, some sort of spirit.

“So I would come over here at night when it was pitch black waiting for this ghost, but nothing. I guess you have to believe in them.”

On a rainy day last week, a Times photographer who apparently believes in them insisted he saw the front door open and close as Thomas and I toured the grounds.

11:40 to 12:40: There’s a buggy out front and a buggy on the roof at Cook’s Corner. One sign says, “Children welcome”; another says, “Horses OK.” You know there are “good eats” because it says that too.

Started in 1926 by Earl and Irene Cook and originally housed across the road in a beekeeper’s cabin, Cook’s bar moved to its present quarters, a former Army barracks, in 1947. Motorcycle enthusiasts discovered the spot in the ‘70s, and the Harleys are still out in force on Wednesday nights and weekends. There’s live country music Thursdays through Saturdays.

North- and south-of-the-border items include huevos con chorizo ($4.50), a dozen sandwiches in the $4 range, and a prime rib chuck wagon dinner ($14); a hot dog is $1.25, and you can spice anything up with Cholula Hot Sauce. I ordered the Jack Daniels Whiskey Chicken Sandwich, which came with Swiss cheese, onions and Jack Daniels mustard but no whiskey.

The eats were good indeed.

* Times Line(tm): 808-8463. To hear brief capsules of other “3-Hour Tours,” call TimesLine and press * 7150



1. Arden Modjeska Home and Gardens

29042 Modjeska Canyon Road


(714) 855-2028

By reservation only. (Tours are currently offered two Tuesdays and two Saturdays per month.)

2. Cook’s Corner

19122 Live Oak Canyon Road (at El Toro and Santiago Canyon roads)

Trabuco Canyon

(714) 858-0266

Kitchen open daily, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; bar open daily, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.


Parking: Limited parking on Modjeska Home property during tours only. Ample free parking at Cook’s Corner and at the Whiting Ranch park entrance.