The house that Helena built


She was considered the best Shakespearean actress of her time. She was godmother to actress Ethel Barrymore. She had her own celebrity endorsements in flatware, perfume and candies. Famous Polish actress Helena Modjeska (1840-1909) immigrated to America for a new life, “one with new scenery and the possibility of settling down somewhere in the land of freedom,” she told friends.

She and her husband settled in the agricultural community in Anaheim, Calif., but after unsuccessfully establishing a farm, she returned to the stage. But Modjeska didn’t forget about a home she and her husband visited. Nestled in the live oak grove on the banks of Santiago Creek, was the land Modjeska and her husband would buy from the owners and friends, Joseph and Refugio Pleasants. And there became the century-old home, and National Historic Landmark, of world-renowned actress, Madame Helena Modjeska.

What’s in a name?

Modjeska’s life mirrored the characters in Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy “As You Like It.” The plot of outcasts taking refuge in the forest, seeking liberty in an uncomfortable environment, was in a way, her story. Seeking escape from “the daily vexations to which each Pole was exposed in Russian or Prussian Poland,” she sought to abandon her native Poland for a rural home in California. Modjeska and her husband were so captivated by the Pleasants’ sprawling property of oak woodland, that they bought the ranch home in 1888. The Modjeska Canyon home was 14.1 acres of land, olive trees and white lilac — a retreat for Modjeska and her husband, Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, when they were not on theatrical tour. The oak groves so resembled the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” that Modjeska nicknamed the grounds, “Arden.”

She hired Stanford White — fitting for Modjeska as he was the son of Shakespearean scholar — Richard Grant White, to design the main house. The architect, who earned acclaim for his designs of New York City’s Washington Square Arch and Madison Square Garden, also designed homes for the Astors and Vanderbilts.

“Because of Stanford White’s design, it’s another reason why this is a National Historic Landmark,” explains Carey Baughman, Historical Resource Specialist of South County Historical Parks in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. “Little has changed on the exterior,” she says, but she turns to point to the two garden fountains in the front yard, also designed by White. The wooden-encased stone is in need of alterations. “We are raising money to repair and restore both fountains,” she says.

Renovations aside, Baughman talks about the storied halls, the famous visitors and the life Modjeska lived during the time she was here, from 1888 to 1905.

“People knew who she was.”

Too much of a good thing

A team of docents show Modjeska’s imprint on the residence to visitors of the home and gardens. The first of 10 rooms includes the smoking parlor with the wood paneling. Then there’s the bathroom, with the indoor plumbing — rare for its time — and the ruby glass that Modjeska installed there. “One theory is it was for their photography. Another is it was for warmth or sunlight. Other than that, it was very expensive to produce,” says Baughman. “The original red glass was moved to Modjeska’s bedroom but the bottom windowpane broke. The Daughters of the American Revolution paid for the installation of red glass.”

Down the hall is Modjeska’s bedroom, separate from her husband’s. “This was typical in Victorian times,” Baughman notes. “It was a status for wealth; it was not an indication of their marriage.”

Because Modjeska was Catholic, she honored the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a revered icon of the Virgin Mary in Czestochowa, Poland. In her room is a kneeling stool before a tapestry of the image.

Baughman walks over to a tiny table with a few hair brushes. “This is a very small vanity compared to other ones in Victorian times,” she says. “Madame Modjeska was more about intellect than vanity.”

“The most famous person who stayed in this room was Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a Polish pianist and a composer,” Baughman says. “He was so famous that women ran after him to get locks of his hair,” she says. Paderewski would become the prime minister and foreign minister of Poland in 1919. During his stay at the Arden house in 1904, he suggested to Modjeska that she sell the home as she was in poor health. He hosted a benefit concert for her to raise money for the move.

Life after Arden

In 1906, Modjeska and her husband sold the home and moved to Tustin, Calif. The property became a private retreat for a group of Long Beach businessmen and their families. In 1913 Arden turned into a vacation resort and advertised in publications with the slogan: “Come see where Modjeska lived.” Developers built the home’s screened porch, a pavilion and a cottage used as a store. After living in Tustin for a year, Modjeska settled in Bay Island off Newport Beach, Calif., and died there in 1909.

Much of the Modjeska Historic House’s preservation is because of Charles and Carrie Walker, a Long Beach, Calif., couple who purchased the property in 1923 as a family vacation home for 63 years. “We owe a lot to the Walkers,” Baughman says. In 1986, the Walkers sold Arden to the County of Orange with the stipulation that the property become a historic park. In 1990, the site became a National Historic La ndmark. Baughman notes that most of Modjeska’s artifacts are in Bower’s Museum.

Entertainment for the entertainer

There were stories of fun, including Modjeska’s guises in the rustic setting. One legend is she’d have friends dress in her costumes and stand on the veranda. People looking at the property would believe it was her. And then there was that trick to keep people away from the home. “She put stuffed mountain lions out front to steer people away,” says Baughman with a laugh. “She had a sense of humor.”

 

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