“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” – Aristotle
As today is Simon’s birthday, I wanted to surprise him with something he would find meaningful, so I arranged for us to take a tour of the historic house and grounds of Madame Helena Modjeska, an internationally-renowned actress and free spirit for whom Modjeska Canyon is named. Simon had mentioned a few times that he wanted to take this tour so it seemed like the perfect surprise.
The property is nestled in the same part of OC as the Vedanta Monastery, and you definitely feel like you have been swept away to a different place and time while visiting her property, now designated as a National Historic Landmark. On the tour, we learned that Modjeska, one of the greatest Shakespearean actresses of the late Victorian era, named her beloved ranch, Arden, because of its similarity to the forest of the same name in As You Like It, replete with live oak trees and mountain lions.
The rooms are preserved pretty much the way they were when Modjeska and her family lived there from 1888 to 1906. She and her then-husband emigrated to the U.S. in 1876 for different reasons. For her, it was an opportunity to escape the oppressive Russian censorship of her theater company in Poland. She fantasized about acting in San Francisco. Her husband, on the other hand, was a nobleman with no property, (as he was not the oldest son, he did not inherit any from his father back in Poland), so he fantasized about buying ranchland in Southern California, where ranches were just becoming available. He wanted to develop an utopian colony, which he ended up doing in Anaheim, but which did not fare very well.
When that fizzled altogether, Mrs. Modjeska actualized her fantasy of performing in San Francisco while Mr. Modjeska (aka Charles “Count” Bozenta Chlapowski) made a squatters claim 30 miles away in Santiago Canyon and built a shack where he lived until they could buy a ranch home in the area. They enlisted the expertise of noted architect of the day Stanford White to redesign the existing ranch home. They furnished it with treasures from their native Poland. They lived there for 18 years and eventually sold the property and moved to the budding town of Newport Beach.
So, props to OC for buying this property in 1986 and recognizing and honoring its historic nature. It is a gorgeous, secluded setting and provides even more of a refuge today than ever from the uber-density and crazy traffic of suburban Orange County.
It is a vivid window into the life of a free spirit who came from Poland, inspired by the timeless American ideal of freedom. I can relate to that. But, I can also relate to her husband and his ardent desire to own property. Luckily, for him, here in OC in the late 1800’s, all he had to do was be a squatter for five years and then he could start gobbling up the land around it for a pittance. And, gobble it up, he did—in its heyday, Arden comprised 1,341 acres. Not bad for a faux aristocrat from Poland!