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Estate Planning

The developer wants a spa. The neighbors want quiet. Can an old mansion be retooled to serve everyone?


It is a monument to Hollywood's ruined rich.

Built in 1923 for a screen idol and his heiress-bride, the Canfield-Moreno Estate in Silver Lake has gone from luxurious playpen to a home for precocious girls to a retreat for Franciscan nuns. Lost in a city where faded glamour is commonplace, it was finally left to rot eight years ago.

Now the estate's fate has become the focus of a tussle between a young entrepreneur who wants to reinvent the mansion as a spa called Hotel 1923 and some neighbors who think the plan is so ill-conceived that it will defile an intimate residential neighborhood.

The two sides are at an impasse. An earlier plan by the developer, Dana Hollister, and a group of unnamed backers was rejected last year. On Tuesday, the fate of a scaled-back version of the $8-million renovation will be determined at a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing.

But in a world where aristocratic aspirations crumble as quickly as they are born, the controversy also raises questions about the nature of these abandoned estates and how they can best serve the communities that surround them. The task is to translate these grand symbols into something vital for the city without dampening their glory.


Hidden behind bulging walls, the 4 1/2-acre estate at 1923 Micheltorena St. has a wonderfully gothic history. Antonio Moreno was a suave silent-film idol who starred in "The Temptress" and "Madame Pompadour." His oil-heiress wife, Daisy, dropped off a 300-foot cliff while racing along Mulholland Drive in 1933. She died only weeks after the couple's sudden separation.

By then, the Morenos had moved and the home already had become a Girl's Hospitality Center, a sort of prepubescent finishing school. Newer images skewed its macabre history: 12-year-old girls playing hide-and-seek in prickly poinsettia bushes, tending their gardens or silently sewing.

Franciscan nuns took over in 1953 and opened the home once a year for a chicken dinner fund-raiser. But few neighbors have ever set foot inside the house.

As owner-in-escrow, Hollister's interest in the property is dependent on whether the zoning variance passes. Her plan is for an exclusive spa with 35 guest rooms.

The 22-room mansion--a U-shaped structure with an inlaid-mosaic pool at its center--will be restored, while stables and cottages will be converted to guest rooms. Treatment facilities will be set in the landscape. Nearby, a greenhouse will be rebuilt and used as a gym.


If the project succeeds, it will become a green sanctuary for a high-stressed elite that looks for efficient service over refined luxury.

But according to many who oppose the project, any hotel structure--well planned or not--will permanently alter the fabric of what is still a close-knit residential community. They envision trucks rumbling up the hilltop laden with Evian water and baby lettuce, stray toys under the squealing tires of sleek Mercedes-Benzes.

There is, however, a less small-minded issue: the opportunity to make these gardens a truly public space. That would not stem the flow of new visitors. What it would do, which the current plan does not, is neatly fuse the public interest and the neighborhood's needs.

The grounds--not the house--are at the center of the public-private debate, and they are the estate's most seductive spaces. Smartly designed, along with the house, by Robert D. Farquhar--the architect of the Pentagon and Los Angeles' California Club--the sloping gardens curl around the house, tempting you out into the sensuous vegetation while keeping you gently tethered to home.

Everywhere you stumble over ruins of a former life: Overgrown ditches that were once vegetable gardens, the foundation of a ruined greenhouse, a drained stone pond. A destitute shrine to Daisy Moreno hides behind some bramble. Fearing the image would frighten the little girls, the nuns tiled her image over with another of the Virgin.

According to architect Douglas Stanton's current scheme, most of the changes will occur here. Along the estate's south side, a crescent of new bungalows will be built alongside a loose cluster of spa facilities: massage rooms, healing treatments and baths. Parking will be moved to a hollow behind the stables, sheltered by trees and the exterior walls, to pacify the neighbors.

In fact, the original structure of the main house is remarkably intact despite its past inhabitants. The pious nuns turned the living room--the house's key architectural moment--into a chapel, but it still evokes other images: women in pearls, vast mirrors and clinking crystal. A pitched timber ceiling is painted in unusually soft detail, while the view slips out seductively toward the pool's lapping water.

The detailing remains. Many of the floors are a milky travertine marble, bordered with black and gold marble baseboards. Hallways are marked by nimbly crafted wrought iron. The dining porch is lined with big, pale-green tiles, while the bathrooms use a more institutional white--a Magic Mountain-like touch.

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