Modjeska’s century-old house, Arden, today a National Historical Landmark, still stands in its live oak grove on the banks of Santiago Creek in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, about eleven miles east of today’s community of Lake Forest. After being privately owned for many years, the historic house now belongs to the County of Orange and is open to the public for guided visitor tours.
To the pioneer settlers of Orange County, Modjeska’s “Forest of Arden” was an idyllic incarnation of the California Dream. Visitors wrote of the rambling white frame house, the green lawns and the rose gardens, the wishing well and the rustic bridges across the creek, the woodpeckers and the humming birds. She named her rustic retreat “Arden” for Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden setting for his pastoral play, “As You Like It”. Friends and admirers loved to think of the great polish actress as she walked through the forest reciting her roles.
Modjeska and her husband, Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, had first seen the canyon site during their Anaheim sojourn in 1876, when it was a 160 acre mountain homestead owned by a pioneer couple Joseph and Maria Refugio Pleasants. Seven years later, on a California vacation visit, the Chlapowskis bought a half-interest in the homestead. In 1888 after the death of Maria Refugio, they bought the remaining interest, plus additional land along the creek, and made plans for a substantial addition to the original Pleasants dwelling.
For assistance, they called upon the gifted young New York architect, Stanford White, destined to become the most famous designer of his time. Probably working from photographs and sketches, White kept the original twin-gabled Pleasants dwelling as the low east end of the house, planned a matching west structure as a new bedroom wing, and set a large, picturesque gabled section in the center. Although Stanford White never saw Santiago Canyon, the house he designed for Helena Modjeska has always seemed perfectly suited to its unique setting.