For 25 years, the National Park Service has awarded Save America’s Treasures grants to preserve import pieces of history, and starting this month, it is helping the county restore a more than 140-year-old landmark in Modjeska Canyon.
A two-story stone house built in the 1870s by Joseph Pleasants is the oldest building at the Helena Modjeska Historic House and Gardens but has seen few repairs. OC Parks took control of the 14.4-acre former home of Modjeska, a world renown Shakespearean actress from Poland, in 1986 and has been working to preserve the hidden gem for the community and the history books.
The home and its surrounding grounds is one of only two National Historic Landmarks in the county.
While the community has been able to tour the property’s large home, in which Modjeska lived, it has not been able to see inside the property’s first structure, the stone building Pleasants built and lived in while running his beekeeping business in the canyon. Pleasants, an early Orange County settler, sold Modjeska the property in 1888 after she fell in love with it during a visit with her husband, Count Karol Bozenta. At the time the couple had been living in Anaheim.
Later, Theodore Payne, who would go on to become a renowned horticulturist and botanist, lived in the stone house’s second floor and served as head gardener on the canyon ranch for Modjeska. The first floor made of stone was used as cold storage; it was restored in 2007.
Who is Helena Modjeska?
Born in Poland, Helena Modjeska immigrated to the United States in 1876 as part of the settlers who established an agricultural colony in Anaheim. She became famous performing in theaters across the country.
The Helena Modjeska Historic House and Gardens are dubbed Arden because the actress saw a similarity in the canyon property to the Forest of Arden described in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It.”
After selling her Arden home, Modjeska lived in a cottage on Bay Island in Newport Beach.
Modjeska died in 1909. Because of her fame, funeral services were held in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Poland.
Want to visit? Visitors may take self-guided tours of the grounds from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays, and there are docent-led tours offered at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays, by advance reservation. For more information on tours and upcoming events: ocparks.com/modjeska
Katie McKay, historic curator with OC Parks, said the stone house is one of the resources that contributed to the property’s landmark designation. And the Modjeska property, she said, is one of a small number of landmarks in the country that are designated as examples of women’s history in the United States – there are about 2,600 – and even fewer tell the story of immigrant women such as Modjeska.
The stone house’s wooden second floor will be restored with the $150,000 grant using materials and methods appropriate to their time. For what can’t be repaired, McKay said the restoration company will have to track down a replacement piece that matches.
The building’s roof needs repairs, and the canyon’s resident woodpeckers have done damage over the years, McKay said. “Things that happen from age.”
The work is expected to be completed this fall, and then OC Parks expects to furnish the building as it once would have looked and include it in the guided tours offered of the grounds twice a week. It will help illustrate the story of Payne’s landscaping influence and others on Modjeska’s staff, McKay said.
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