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New Lease on Life for Mansion : Silver Lake: The religious order that owns the estate plans to keep and repair it. This decision is a relief to neighbors and preservationists.

October 05, 1990|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ending two years of speculation, an order of nuns has announced that it will scrap plans to sell a five-acre mountaintop estate in Silver Lake that was once the home of a Los Angeles oil heiress during her marriage to a silent movie star.

Having failed to find a buyer, the Mexico-based Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception has decided instead to repair the earthquake-damaged mansion as a retreat and training facility for nuns. The home for girls--which was the primary use of the house from 1929 until it was damaged in the October, 1987, earthquake--will not be reopened because the four nuns who ran the facility are either aged or infirm.

Although the decision put to rest the fears of both neighbors and historic preservationists that the wooded property would be subdivided, it also leaves the religious order burdened with a restoration project that could cost more than $150,000.

"I have joy and at the same time I have fright," said Sister Benigna, the spunky but elderly nun who supervised the girls' home for decades and now is responsible for raising the money for repairs.

In an understated letter announcing the change of plans, Sister Benigna asked neighbors and supporters for help in financing the restoration of the 1922 mansion.

"At first, I said, 'Oh, we can do it.' Now, I wonder if they are that much willing to help or able to," the nun said, referring to people who live near the mansion as well as a group of volunteers affiliated with the order.

The Spanish-Italian-style villa, which commands a 360-degree view of the city from the highest point of Micheltorena Street, was declared uninhabitable after several cracks appeared in its unreinforced masonry walls during the 1987 quake. The handful of girls living there were moved to other homes and the four nuns moved into a converted stable on the property.

Because of the anticipated cost of the repairs, the leadership of the Franciscan Sisters decided to sell. The proceeds were to be used to build a preschool to serve poor families in the San Fernando Valley, an attorney representing the order said.

However, residents of the steep neighborhood around the property objected when Los Angeles developer John Rizzo negotiated an option to buy the property for subdivision.

The residents circulated a petition and wrote to the order's provincial headquarters in San Fernando and to Archbishop Roger M. Mahoney opposing any change in the use of the site.

More significantly, the Los Angeles Conservancy successfully pressed to have the property designated a historic-cultural monument on the virtue of its architecture and unusual history.

The mansion had been the home of Daisy Canfield Danziger, the daughter of oil magnate Charles A. Canfield, and silent film star Antonio Moreno during their brief, illustrious marriage. Moreno at the time was second only to Valentino in popularity as a Latin screen lover. In a report supporting the nomination, historian Portia Lee described the mansion as the setting of lavish Sunday gatherings that mixed Moreno's Hollywood acquaintances with the Canfields' society connections.

The social life at the mansion ended abruptly in 1928 with the breakup of the marriage, but the villa was converted to a girls' home and was maintained almost without change by the Canfield family charity. In accordance with their father's will, Daisy Canfield and her two sisters deeded the estate to the Chloe P. Canfield Memorial Home, a training facility for girls established in their mother's name.

When the foundation was dissolved in the early 1950s, the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese bought the property and deeded it to the Franciscan Sisters who continued to run the girls' home until the earthquake.

At one point, opponents of the estate's sale considered legal action to enforce the original deed requiring the property to remain a facility for girls. However, when it was designated as a monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission in August, 1988, developer Rizzo dropped his plans without a fight.

Christopher J. Anderson, an attorney who represented the sisters, said at the time that they intended to continue looking for a buyer.

"In many ways, the Micheltorena property has become like an expensive antique automobile," Anderson said then. "Collecting and fixing up antique cars and homes is something for the rich."

The conservancy offered to help the sisters find a developer who was committed to preserving the house as part of a development plan.

Over the next six months, several inquiries came to the conservancy, said preservation officer Teresa Grimes. Proposals included building homes around the Canfield-Moreno house, restoring it as a bed-and-breakfast business or a hotel and--in a concept put forward by actor Billy Barty--converting it into a home for little people.

Grimes said all the potential buyers were referred to the sisters' real estate agent, but none pursued their plans.

"I don't think anyone was prepared to pay $6.5 million," Grimes said.

Interest in the estate fell off abruptly in the spring of 1989, Grimes said. Since then, the order maintained complete silence on the disposition of the property until Sister Benigna's letters went out last month.

Soon after that, Sister Benigna organized a $20 a person fund-raising event that included dinner and tours of the house. The event raised about $4,000, she said.

Beyond that and the requests for donations, Sister Benigna said, she has no comprehensive plan for raising the money.

"We're just planning on God, divine providence and the good will of the people," she said.

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