An apparent move by an order of missionary nuns to sell a 5-acre mountaintop estate in Silver Lake has set off so-far polite protest by neighbors, historical activists and supporters of a home for wayward girls the nuns have operated on the site since 1953.
The nuns decided to sell the former estate of Los Angeles oil heiress Daisy Canfield Danziger and silent movie star Antonio Moreno after the October, 1987, earthquake left several large cracks in its 22-room Spanish/Italian mansion, church officials said.
After the earthquake, the handful of court-placed girls who had been living there under the nuns' supervision were relocated to other facilities and the nuns, members of the Mexican-based Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, moved into a converted stable.
Sister Leticia Rodriguez, Los Angeles provincial mother of the order, declined to receive phone calls at the order's residence in San Fernando. Nuns living on the estate, bound by vows of obedience, would not discuss the status of the property.
Others associated with the order, however, said the property has been listed for sale because the order can no longer manage a program for juvenile court wards.
At the annual chicken dinner fund-raising event held on the estate Sunday, neighbors gathered more than 200 signatures on a petition opposing any change of use of the site.
Letters opposing the sale have been sent to Sister Leticia and to Archbishop Roger M. Mahoney.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese said the archbishop has no jurisdiction over the financial affairs of an independent order operating within his sphere.
"If they're making a business decision for their own best interests, it would not be for the archbishop to intervene," said Neal Blaney, director of real estate.
Blaney said Sister Leticia told him that the property had been placed on the market.
However, reaction against divestiture may have temporarily caused leaders of the order to re-examine their decision.
Carmen Sandoval, vice president of the volunteer guild that supports the Silver Lake program, said Sister Leticia told her that she has referred the matter to the order's mother general in Mexico and is awaiting a ruling in September.
Meanwhile, even before the plan to sell the property became known, the Los Angeles Conservancy was preparing a recommendation for designation of the 1922 mansion and grounds as a historic-cultural monument.
On Wednesday, members of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission toured the property, which commands a 360-degree view of the city, and are expected to make their recommendation early in September.
Designation as a monument could delay the sale of the property as long as a year but could not ultimately prevent it.
In a report presented by Conservancy historian Portia Lee, the 22-room mansion was described as a combination of Mexican hacienda and Italian villa styles. Its architect, Robert D. Farquhar, also designed the California Club and the William Andrews Clarke Memorial Library at USC, both Los Angeles historic-cultural monuments.
Lee said its architectural highlights, including "an elaborately stenciled, beamed ceiling" in the former living room now used by the nuns as a chapel, are enhanced by their integration with the expansive sloping grounds.
"The result is a liaison . . . that reflects the professional and social life of the Moreno family," she said.
The combination of Daisy Canfield's social ties, as the daughter of Los Angeles oil magnate Charles A. Canfield, and the Hollywood connections of Moreno, second only to Rudolph Valentino in popularity as a Latin lover, brought entertainers, high society and the old Spanish families together in Sunday gatherings at the estate, Lee said, quoting the account of Hollywood reporter De Witt Bodeen.
That lavish life ended abruptly in 1928. With the breakup of their marriage, the Morenos deeded the estate to the Chloe P. Canfield Memorial Home, a training facility for girls established by Daisy Moreno and her two sisters in accordance with their father's will.
The deed provided that the property would revert to Daisy Moreno or her heirs if used for any purpose other than a home for girls.
The foundation, named for the three sisters' mother, filed court proceedings in the early 1950s to dissolve itself and to disperse its resources to scholarships.
As part of that action, the foundation sold the property to the archdiocese, which, in turn, deeded it to the Franciscan Sisters.
Originally, they operated a home for as many as 125 orphans and homeless girls, said Sandoval of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters Guild.
More recently, the sisters had begun to house female wards of the court, a duty that Sandoval said, taxes the five resident nuns, whose superior, Sister Benigna, has been with the program since the order took it over in 1953. Sandoval said she urged the order to convert the estate to a retreat for retired nuns.
"Their argument is that they do not have the type of personnel to handle that type of girl," Sandoval said, reffering to the delinquent girls who had been residing there. "My contention is that it is an ideal place for a retreat home. The location is central. The atmosphere tends to meditation. It is a landmark that could be developed into something useful."
Even if the order should accept that suggestion, the presence of the original deed restriction could pose an obstacle.
Lee, who has interviewed several of the Canfield heirs, said they showed no interest in regaining the property but remain committed to its use as a home for girls.