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Friday, Jun 14, 2024

Silent Legacy

One of last bastions of silent movie actor Francis Lederer’s ranch has been sold to a local developer, whose plans for the historic site include a senior living center. The property — about 7 acres fronted by Sherman Way in West Hills — is home to the Canoga Mission Gallery, which Lederer built in the 1930s as a stable. Today, the gallery is home to the Hidden Chateau & Gardens, a supposedly haunted boutique and wedding venue run by Jill Milligan. Partners David Spiegel of Woodland Hills-based Spiegel Development and Michael Harris also are under contract to purchase about 7 acres across the street, where Francis and his wife Marion’s mission-style home rests on the hillside. The deal includes many of the historic furnishings and art the Lederers acquired over the decades to grace their home — where the couple hosted elaborate galas that drew the likes of Lucille Ball, Cary Grant and Aristotle Onassis. The long-time real estate partners plan to build a 310-unit senior living community on vacant land adjacent to the historic Gallery, located near the corner of Woodlake Avenue and Sherman Way. Plans also call for a community center, as big as 10,000 square feet, to serve the greater West Hills neighborhood. “There is a big shift in the baby boomer population — it’s just a blossoming segment of the population,” Harris said, describing the need for more senior housing. Current plans call for two buildings, one with 200 independent living units and another with 110 assisted living units. Groundbreaking is scheduled for next year. Developers have pinpointed senior living communities as the next commercial real estate hotspot, leading to proposals in Woodland Hills, Winnetka and more. But unlike other senior living proposals, the proposed new community has added sensitivity due to the historic nature of the property. The partners have pledged to preserve the Canoga Mission Gallery as well as the Lederers’ mission-style home across the street. Both structures were built by Lederer from local stone in the 1930s and are designated historic-cultural monuments, which protects the properties from demolition. No more weddings History hums at the Hidden Chateau & Gardens — Mexico, European film, the California of old. Decades ago, an artist who lived in the old stable building committed suicide there. His ghost is said to haunt the building and its environs. “He messes with my computer,” Milligan said. Milligan said the developers have informed her she can’t hold weddings past December due to planned construction, a significant blow because the events account for the majority of revenue. “If I can’t do weddings there, what am I doing there?” Milligan asked. “Retail does not hold its own.” Since 2005, Milligan said she spent about $250,000 to landscape and develop the gardens at the Hidden Chateau. “It is a little sad. I put a lot of heart and soul into this place.” Spiegel and Harris said they are working with Milligan and will revisit her status this summer, but they said they can not commit to anything beyond this year. But even if she must move on, Milligan said there’s no animosity. She even praises the developers for their proposal — especially the community center — which she says the Lederers would have approved of. “I am welcoming a new adventure,” said Milligan, who along with her husband penned the humor book Grandma Rules. “I am an actor and comedian, and I would like to get back to that.” A leading man The future use of the Canoga Mission Gallery has yet to be determined, Spiegel said. Indeed, one chapter in history ended when the Lederer trust sold the property. Born in Prague as Frantisek Lederer in 1899, the debonair actor graced the stage and screen in Europe and the United States; he said a leading role in “Pandora’s Box”— a renowned 1929 German silent film. For years, he was the “honorary mayor of Canoga Park.” He was known for his community service, founding Studio City’s American National Academy of Performing Arts, where he taught classes. When he died in 2000, at the age of 100, his obituary appeared in the nation’s leading newspapers — the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times. “Francis and Marion were always Canoga Park’s best foot forward — they were exemplary,” said Mary Richter Galeana, 86, a longtime friend of the couple. For years, Richter Galeana ran an art gallery at the Canoga Mission Galley along with her husband, Obdulio and Marion Lederer. Jaunts to Mexico to acquire folk art for the gallery were common for the trio. “We went all the way down to the Yucatan,” she said. “We researched where the best folk artists were, and we went right to their homes — it was a lot of fun.” After the 1994 Northridge Earthquake severely damaged the Gallery, Marion Lederer had it rebuilt — against the wishes of her advisors — as a testament to her husband’s legacy, Richter Galeana said. Marion Lederer passed away last year, leading to the Gallery’s sale to Harris and Spiegel’s limited liability company as well as the deal for the house, which is currently in escrow. Francis and Marion’s home was filled with old world charm. A 1965 Architectural Digest detailed the many treasures: Della Robbia plaques; a 13th century Roman crucifix of bronze repoussé; floor tiles made in Spain and Portugal; carved, painted and gilded chairs from Catalonia; an Umbrian Renaissance dining table. Spiegel and Harris said the art and other valuables were removed from the house in order to catalog the antiques. They declined to comment on their current location. If the deal goes through, the duo envisions a “cultural center” at the house similar to Orcutt Ranch in West Hills, Harris said. “We have done a lot of projects, and it is a rare opportunity that we get to do something so wonderful for the community,” Harris said. Richter Galeana said the Lederers wanted their historic home to be turned into a museum for the community. The couple would have liked the community center that the developers are proposing across the street, she said. “I think that is something Francis and Marion would have been amenable to — benefitting the community and giving back,” Richter Galeana said. The developers said the Lederer trust will allow Francis and Marion’s name to grace the building.

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