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Modjeska Home a Hidden Jewel in Canyon Glade

December 20, 1985|GORDON GRANT | Times Staff Writer

Helena Modjeska--who was, and possibly remains, the greatest of Shakespearean actresses--left a worldwide heritage in the annals of the stage.

Yet far from her native Poland and far from the great theaters of Europe, New York and San Francisco, she left also her imperishable imprint on Orange County.

A 5,481-foot mountain peak, one of two that form Saddleback Mountain--the other is Santiago Peak--is named for her.

So is a densely wooded canyon that lies below those majestic mountains, a canyon where she made her home from 1888 to 1906 in a stand of live oaks, sycamores, toyon and other native and imported trees and shrubs that she called "The Forest of Arden," from Shakespeare's "As You Like It".

Now, Arden and the house built there by Madame Modjeska and her husband, Charles Bozenta Chlapowski, known during his years here as Mr. Bozenta, a friendly fellow who rolled his own cigarettes, stand a chance of becoming a county-owned historic site, open to the public after more than half a century as a secluded, secretive place hidden in the glades.

If it does gain such status, it will be because the Harbors, Beaches and Parks Commission, operating on just half of its anticipated $53-million project budget, believed it deserved special treatment.

"At first, the Modjeska home was not high on the priority list of acquisitions," said Eric Jessen, chief of program planning and special projects for the county's Environmental Management Agency.

Projected maintenance costs of potential acquisitions play an important role in decisions to buy sites, he said, and "my staff

and I figured that it will cost about $500,000 to put the place in order for public use, and then $200,000 a year to maintain and provide a security system for the Modjeska property."

Those considerations, plus the fact that the asking price by the owners is about $2 million, "and we have only about $1 million to spend," added up to a grim outlook, Jessen said.

"But the commission (on Dec. 11) recognized this (acquisition) as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, with extraordinary circumstances, and so elevated it on the list of special projects," he said.

There still are hurdles: delicate negotiations on how to reach a price agreement with the present owners (the Walker family of Long Beach) and the final word of the county Board of Supervisors in early January on whether the undertaking, which already is designated as California State Landmark No. 205, will be worth the money.

The lane leading into Arden, gained after crossing a bridge over Santiago Creek and, by special permission of the owners, through a locked gate, winds through the shade of ancient oaks and sycamore trees, with lush ground cover, vines and shrubbery. Birds twitter from their secret places, enhancing the solitude.

At a slight curve, the house, white and graceful, appears through the greenery.

It is an eight-room dwelling, long and low with three peaks in the roof. It is described as a bungalow influenced by the style of the East Indies, with wide open porches at both ends, and it was designed by internationally known architect Stanford White.

The New York firm of which he was a member produced not only elegant homes, mostly along the Atlantic seaboard, but such public buildings as the old Pennsylvania Station.

The home at Arden was built in 1888. Vaulted ceilings, all paneled in stained, tongue-and-groove redwood planking, rise beneath the roof peaks. Three stone and brick chimneys serve six fireplaces.

Oval windows, arched windows and leaded windows abound. One window in Madame Modjeska's bedroom has a red pane which casts a warm glow over her pale oak bed with the simply carved foot and head boards. It is the only piece of her original furniture that remains, and the rather small room, which opens onto the porch at the east end of the building, is heated by a tiny, elegant fireplace.

Mr. Bozenta's room is next to hers, with a fireplace that shares the same chimney and French doors that open onto the same porch.

Down the hall is another room that served as Madame Modjeska's costume closet.

The living room, with its lofty ceiling, is dominated by the huge fireplace, arched windows on the south side and a music niche on the north where the actress's countryman, Ignace Jan Paderewski, pianist, composer and later prime minister of Poland, often entertained her guests with his artistry.

Over the years, her guests at Arden included many of the theater's leading performers such as Edwin Booth, Maurice Barrymore and Otis Skinner, as well as another of her countrymen, Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of "Quo Vadis."

Madame Modjeska and her husband first came to Orange County in the early 1870s, hoping to establish a colony of Polish refugees from Russian domination. In the process, they were instrumental in the development of what is now the city of Anaheim.

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