It makes sense that a place as idyllic as Modjeska Canyon began with the stuff of Shakespearean fantasy. In 1876, the great Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska moved from Poland to California with her husband, Count Bozenta. A dozen years later, architect Stanford White designed an elegant canyon house for them in the Santa Ana Mountains. The lush gardens were extensive and promptly named after the forest in the Bard's "As You Like It" — Arden.
Even though the actress and the count sold their ranch in 1906, interest in the famed retreat continued to draw people to the area. Parts of the estate were later parceled off as sites for vacation houses.
The actress' association with the area was so strong that it was later named after her.
Modjeska Canyon's early roots in the entertainment industry continued well into the 1940s, with actors buying the tidy weekend escapes that are now the sweetly ramshackle homes of full-time canyon lovers. Today, the canyon is a motley assembly of small, homey cottages with overgrown gardens and larger modern homes built in the last few years — some unique, some reminiscent of tract houses.
What it's about
Peace, quiet and proximity to nature are foremost here. Canyon residents, tucked away among the trees and running creeks, take it slow and easy.
Worn sedans and SUVs — which serve a practical function in a rugged canyon — move patiently along narrow roads as families make their way to Cleveland National Forest, adjacent to the neighborhood. Modjeska boasts a nature preserve, Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, with a population of local birds, a pond full of red-eared slider turtles and caged habitats for rehabilitating injured animals.
There's a tiny natural history museum across the street and a small community center.
The canyon is home to foxes, coyotes, a healthy population of woodpeckers and an occasional mountain lion. There are no commercial businesses in Modjeska except for a real estate agency and a propane company, situated in what was formerly a tiny general store.
Good news, bad news
The neighborhood is a model of quiet community living. Up and down narrow Modjeska Canyon Road, motorists greet friends and stop for car-to-car chats. If the driver waiting behind is a canyon resident, "they'll stop and politely wait, because they know they won't be forever," says longtime Modjeska resident Amy Richards, proprietor of Amy Richards Realty. "That's how we know when someone's not from Modjeska. They'll honk."
Although that might sound frustrating to the average urbanite, Richards explains that it's different when everyone knows one another. Modjeska residents are party lovers who put together a multitude of community activities including potlucks, moonlight horseback rides and elaborate Christmas celebrations during which Santa, operating from a local fire truck, tosses candy to kids. A Halloween party is held at the fire station, and a Fourth of July parade makes its way along Modjeska Canyon Road, open to anyone who wants to join on horseback, foot or homemade float.
Horseback riding and hiking are a major part of the Modjeska lifestyle. "Most of us do trails through each other's property," says resident Pam Erickson, who breeds horses with her husband on the Colonial-style ranch they built in Modjeska in 1994.
All is not perfect, however. There's occasional animosity between the owners of larger, newer houses and the smaller places that make up Modjeska proper.
"Some people want to bring Mission Viejo in, or the city," says Erickson, who admits that some residents found her house pretentious, with its Greek columns and generous sprawl.
Finding the right Modjeska Canyon home takes patience, because they don't go on the market often. "I've had clients who insisted on Modjeska and waited two or three years for the right house to come up," says Richards, adding that location is more important than the house.