Photo by Jeanne RiceIn a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine . . . live Leo and Marija Hetzel and their son, Yasha. Well, except for that last part. They're not miners—Leo's a professional photographer and lifelong surfer, and Maria's a school teacher.

But their woodsy, hand-built house in Modjeska Canyon (named for famous 19th-century Shakespearean actress Madame Helena Modjeska) is about halfway down the holler, just like the miner, 49er and his daughter, Clementine. In English, that means halfway down the canyon; holler just sounds more . . . rustic.

And Modjeska Canyon is about as rustic as Orange County gets—a nostalgic glimpse of what these parts looked like before the Irvine Co. invented stucco.

Leo and Marija started with one tiny building 29 years ago this April—what was left of the original 1947 house after the rest of it burned, Leo tells me. After the fire was out, the owner then, a standup guy by the name of Bill Lee, tied the remains to one of his many tractors and jerked it out of the ashes.

That's the kind of guy Bill Lee was. "He told me everything [about the house], and he was an honest, great guy," Leo says, as he and Molly the sheepdog give me the grand tour. "That fireplace, it has a steel box inside, and the box is made of armor plate from El Toro Marine Base. It's, like, 3/8 steel, and it's welded up. He said, 'If there's ever an atomic attack, you get in that fireplace and you'll be fine.'"

Whew! That's a relief.

This was Leo's future house; he and Marija made it a home: removing a lowered ceiling to reveal the elegant, natural beamed roof and adding on a partial second story with an adorable extra bedroom. Now Yasha's room when he's home (he's 26), it's tucked into the rafters, like a perfect little attic room.

Did I mention Leo loves wood? Well, he does. Leo is the first of two guys I meet in a single day who both love wood. The other restores vintage trailers and rhapsodizes about the contrast between Douglas fir and birch.

Leo loves found objects, too—so what he finds is wood. His lot is littered with remnants—more cluttered, he says, than it ever was when the Marine Bill Lee owned it: there's redwood banisters and planks from a house on Balboa Island that got renovated beyond recognition; a 1940s-era nightstand with woodsy, carved details; a trunkful of old Santa Ana Register copies.

Inside, it's much the same. He made the family's dining table from remnants of old packing crates he got down in the harbor—not far from where he found free mahogany scraps to make his son's nightstand.

The railing I cling to as I make my way upstairs (hoping Molly doesn't follow me 'cause she can't get down) is a natural pine limb his father gave him, carefully sanded down through the bark until it gleams almost as brightly as the hardwood floor, salvaged from Cal State Long Beach long ago.

In the two-story guest house abutting the garage, a separate building that, again, Leo built himself, there's an elegant little upstairs library, lighted by the sun through dormer windows—and nearly vertical stairs—all in natural wood.

Overhead hang his U-Control model airplanes from childhood in Long Beach, all tattered tissue paper and balsa wood. And in between, as Aldous Huxley famously remarked, are the doors. Leo likes wooden doors, too, and he's added several in the guest house, rather impromptu and unmatching, but all functional, hiding things like closets and a laundry room.

If there's a commonality here, maybe it's that nothing matches but everything works together, despite the rampant clashing of the combed redwood walls in the bedroom and the former Cal State Long Beach gym floor.

In this way, the Hetzel house is as resourceful and unpretentious as Modjeska Canyon itself.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >