Thursday, September 24, 2009

Deconstructing the Lego House

I am a sucker for architectural follies. Here is a very unusual teardown story: A man builds a two-story house out of millions of Legos, the novelty soon wears off, it's difficult and expensive to move, and nobody wants it, so it's gotta come down. It's a cute house, despite its clear impracticality (and very hard bed). It kind of makes me think of Rietveld's Schroder House crossed with Piet Mondrian. One would think Lego (the company) would want to keep and display the house just to illustrate the extreme possibilities of this medium.

Can't they just pull it apart in chunks or sections and store them somewhere? I used to cheat when I dismantled a Lego house - I'd keep wall sections mostly attached so I could save a few steps next time I decided to build something. These guys are just blasting right through the Lego walls and shattering the plastic bricks. Supposedly the salvaged Legos will be given to people who need Legos, but before that happens, I'm just picturing some poor person who has to sit there prying millions of Legos apart, piece by piece.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

La Ronda: "You've had time."

So, two weeks have gone by and the La Ronda story just gets stranger and more pathetic. Seriously, nobody could make this up. This blog has lots of great information - click on the La Ronda tag for all the gory details.

Key Updates

1. Joseph Kestenbaum has been officially outed as the owner of La Ronda. True to form, instead of facing the music himself, he hired a PR firm to express his outrage that his decision to buy and knock down a landmark has generated a "media circus." Poor baby.

I do feel sympathy for his kids, having parents who are publicly revealed to be this greedy and egocentric. As I've said before, there was plenty of opportunity here to do the right thing, or to at least choose a less damaging solution. In his statement, reproduced here, Kestenbaum claims he was the only person willing to buy the place and that he was also willing to sell it once outrage erupted over the demolition permit. But did others have a fair opportunity to buy it from him?

He also claims he and his family had been searching for a new home for five years. Please. Of all the hundreds of luxury Main Line-area properties that have come on the market since 2004, and the fact that even now there are lots of high-end houses stagnating on the market with prices dropping due to the recession, was there absolutely NO other suitable place to buy? Did they even look at anything else, or were they eyeing La Ronda (or La Ronda's location, location, location) all along?

2. Kestenbaum was outed by none other than Arthur Kania, who justifies the violation of what was supposed to be a confidential real estate deal by saying "But he outed me first!" Serves them both right.

3. Kania, who has retained his own PR flack, is now asserting his salvage rights and carting off whatever movable property remains after Kestenbaum's August ravaging of the interior. He has hired a salvage company which has an, um, interesting background.

Meanwhile, the salvage company that reportedly received the primo elements from the August scavenging is not interested in returning them. As seen in this article, the company specializes in recycling salvage as unique furniture and gift items. What oh what will they do with those magnificent staircases? They could be broken up to make a headboard, or some nice garden ornaments, perhaps? And maybe the reuse of this desirable loot will be shown on their new reality TV show on the DIY Network. Just look at all those nice press clips!

4. Given Kestenbaum's refusal to negotiate and Kania salvaging what little of value is left, Benjamin Wohl appears to have given up. Heck, I would too. While technically the house is still standing, it lacks most of its key decorative elements, and has sustained major interior damage during the removal of said parts.

In retrospect, it's unfortunate that Wohl didn't show up early in the summer. Not his fault, since he apparently didn't know about La Ronda until July, but the eleventh-hour timing of his offer undoubtedly made it that much more unappealing to Kestenbaum.

Nice try, Mr. Wohl. Thank you. It heartens us all to see a deep-pocketed total stranger step up and offer to take on such an expensive and complicated endeavor. Keep an eye on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered Properties and other preservation alerts. You will undoubtedly be needed again.

5. Various people have dug up dirt on Kestenbaum and his wife as a result of the public outing. Fascinating stuff, much of it revealed here, here, and here. Gotta love those photos with the cowboy hat. Now that will fit right in when you move to Bryn Mawr.

Perhaps it is a little juvenile and obsessive to publicize all these tidbits. But let's face it, Kestenbaum's actions are those of an insecure cowardly little man, who is now having a PR-facilitated tantrum about all these mean people who should have bought La Ronda when they had the chance instead of making a fuss about it. He's like Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - "I want the world, and I want it now!" Sit and spin, little fella.

If you ask me, Kania is just as much of a skunk as Kestenbaum. Some people think he's a good guy for trying to stop Kestenbaum from salvaging. From my chair, not so much. He is not protecting what's left from harm, but has his own salvagers doing the exact same thing as Kestenbaum's, so he too can profit from the haul. I doubt he's upset about the loss of the house parts illegally removed by Kestenbaum, only the loss of the money he would have made selling them. Not only did he precipitate this entire fiasco by letting the house run down and then selling it to a secretive but clearly demolition-craving buyer, but he aborted any further attempt to pull the house back from the brink with the insistence on maintaining his "salvage rights." He knew damn well what would happen if he made legal provision for salvage rights. Interesting that he didn't try to enforce these rights until Wohl showed up in August, even though Kestenbaum was already well into stripping the interior by then.

I could go on, but I'm running out of sputter.

Disgusting behavior all around. Hopefully karma is as much of a bitch as they all say. I almost hope that poor house will burn down with what's left of its dignity, rather than subjected to the continued picking and scavenging of the vultures responsible for its demise. Twenty years from now, will the key players involved look back and be proud of their actions? I can only hope that the loss of La Ronda will result in stronger future protections for historically significant properties in Lower Merion and the greater Philadelphia area, much as the demolition of New York's Penn Station helped galvanize the national historic preservation movement in the 1960s.

Just to leave one last taste of the stink of this affair, enjoy the last word from Kestenbaum's flunky, courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Derrick Nunnally:

Kestenbaum's spokesman, Jeff Jubelirer, said Wohl had agreed to the requirements and was attempting a "publicity stunt" by offering further negotiations.

"He hasn't proven or shown that he can execute," Jubelirer said. "You can come up here and do your charade and get lots of press and make us look like the evil guy, but you've had time."

You've had time too, Joe (and Arthur). Oh, the names I could call you besides "the evil guy."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Grumman-St. John House - summer 2009

Here is a nice example of maintenance. Shame, shame.

La Ronda - a story of selfishness

I am absolutely disgusted by a travesty occurring as we speak in the Philadelphia suburbs. The house in question, La Ronda in Bryn Mawr, is an Addison Mizner Spanish Revival mansion constructed in 1929. It was Mizner's last commission, is among the finest examples of Spanish Revival architecture in the Philadelphia area, and is the only Mizner commission in Pennsylvania. The only Mizner house north of the Mason-Dixon line, actually. Reportedly, it is in nearly original condition. Or was, until the past month when the salvagers started scavenging and hauling off some of the best pieces.

Google "La Ronda demolition" and search for "La Ronda" to get a better picture of all the nuances, but here is the basic story in a timeline:

March 2009: A mystery buyer, hiding behind an anonymous corporate front, purchases La Ronda and its 3.2 acre property for $6 million, quite a bargain when you think about what you're getting. The house needs some work, but is still magnificent and well preserved.

The Mystery Buyer (MB) soon files for a permit to demolish La Ronda. Because, among other grievous faults, it doesn't have air conditioning and it would be "too expensive" to install it. It "just doesn't work anymore for a family of today." The architects who supposedly went through the house aren't creative enough to figure out what to do with it. And the owner only needs a 10,000-square-foot mansion, so what could he possibly do with an 14,000SF mansion? (note: sarcasm is mine) I mean, if none of this works for you, why buy this house anyway? You could probably get more land somewhere else, and have your bonus room too.

Honestly, MB, if you can afford to buy and then tear down one of the greatest surviving Main Line estate homes and then build your dream castle on the site, how can you snipe about the cost of air conditioning? It cannot be more expensive to renovate La Ronda than it is to knock it down and build a huge new house. You could save yourself a lot of money and live in a landmark too.

May-June 2009: After putting off the decision for a month, Lower Merion Township, the municipality in which the house is located, approves the demolition permit. The township has a demolition-delay ordinance, i.e. a 90-day "cooling off" period during which alternative solutions may be found and any required documentation completed. Their ordinances and comprehensive plan were written 30 years ago, long before the economic conditions and greed of the early 2000s led to widespread teardowns. At this time, La Ronda was classified as a "Class II" building, which affords it minimal protection. As with most municipalities nationwide, the township has little power to stop a teardown, and the horse has left the barn. Seriously, sometimes it feels like the 1960s all over again. Doesn't anyone remember Penn Station?

Fundraising and other efforts by local preservationists and the Lower Merion Conservancy are rebuffed by MB and his lawyer.

July 2009: Lower Merion township officials visit the building for a walk-through, and a consultant makes required architectural documentation of the house, at which time it is still intact.

By the end of the month, workers begin dismantling and carrying off interior fixtures and other salvage from the house.

August 2009: A potential savior arrives in the form of Benjamin Wohl, a Florida resident who saved and lives in another Mizner house. Wohl offers MB a six-figure fee to buy the house and move it to a nearby property at his own expense.

MB apparently rejects one offer, refuses to negotiate or even take phone calls, and hides behind his not-very-personable attorney. Meanwhile, the former owner, Arthur Kania, claims he retains salvage rights, throwing another monkey wrench into the whole fiasco.

MB's plans for the site include a house bracketed by a basketball court and a pool, with a circular driveway almost as big as the existing house. How nice.

Yesterday, August 31, 2009: Demonstration held at the gates of La Ronda. Wohl flies up from Florida to attend.

Today, September 1, 2009: The date on which MB can receive the demolition permit from Lower Merion Township. Although the permit requires the house to stay up for 30 more days, the vultures can pick at the fresh kill and carry off anything of salvage value. If anything is left at this point, which is debatable. Kania's rights to salvage are upheld, meaning he is now at odds with Wohl, who would be left with a fixture-less shell if MB agrees to let him move the house.

This story has received considerable local coverage, and even some national coverage. See here for a partial list of articles. There is a Save La Ronda website and Facebook group. Adrian Scott Fine of the National Trust posted about it here.

I'm praying for a last-minute save, but given the selfish and deplorable behavior of MB and Kania, I have a hard time believing in miracles.

Those at fault for this, as I see it from my antique armchair:

1. Lower Merion Township. You should have updated your ordinances and put La Ronda on your Class I list long ago, and not made designation voluntary. This only proves, once again, that anything in the township is teardown bait. I hope this is a lesson for you, however hard it is to swallow. Get your house in order before another permit application arises.

2. Arthur Kania. You own the place for decades, let it get run down, then sell it to MB for a handsome price. You probably realize MB is thinking of tearing it down, because you insist on retaining interior salvage rights. This means you not only get a large amount of money from selling the place, but you have first dibs on harvesting the best parts of it, which you can then sell. When a person appears who wants to buy the house and move it, you help scotch any potential deal when you step in to insist on protecting your salvage rights, which essentially negates all other arrangements that may arise to save the place. To add insult to injury, you try to prove your altruism and desire to "preserve" the house by claiming you will donate some of the pieces to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Scum.

3. Mystery Buyer, now revealed as one Joseph Kestenbaum, president and CEO of Marsh Hawk Capital Management LLC, Conshohocken, PA. You know exactly what you are doing, and you know it is at the very best an unpopular decision, and at worst, wasteful, shortsighted, lazy, and wrong. As such, you can't even step up and reveal your identity, until someone finally tracked you down and revealed it yesterday.

If you believe so strongly in your right to do what you wish with your property, then show your face and take the heat instead of hiding behind your high-priced attorney and corporate front. Can you not even consider negotiating or compromising? You'd save yourself the hassle and large expense of demolition and redeem yourself considerably with the locals. The only downside for you might be a delay of a few months while the house is moved. Let's face it, once you build your McMasterpiece and move in, people are going to know who you are and they are going to hate you with a passion. Nobody is going to show up with a welcome plate of cookies, believe me.

4. The culture of wastefulness and greedy excess that encourages this type of activity and makes it seem like a good and profitable idea to buy a house you hate so you can knock it down and build what you think is a better one.

For better or worse, the economy has now changed, and culture is starting to recognize the value of being "green," but reconciling green with historic preservation still has a long way to go. The message that "the greenest building is one that has already been built" has gotten through to the preservation world, but it hasn't quite made it into the mainstream. Right now, the mainstream is hung up on all the tax credits it can get for "weatherization" (i.e. "let's rip out our historic wood windows and doors, throw them in the landfill, buy and install vinyl replacements, and then we're green and get stimulus tax credits, yippee!"). I can only hope that the value of keeping old buildings and repairing rather than replacing them (AND their original components) becomes clear to the wider world before the economy and the real estate market rebound.

There was so much opportunity for a better solution to all of this, so much opportunity for both the buyer and seller to be the bigger person and do the right thing. Short of a last-minute miracle deal, everyone loses here.

Update 9/2/09: Much of the interior of La Ronda has reportedly already been destroyed by Kestenbaum's salvagers/pillagers. See photos here. Where is the salvage going?  How much money will Kestenbaum make from selling it, or will it be reused to add "character" to the McMasterpiece?  I'd hate to see those lovely metalwork elements end up on the scrap heap, but nothing would surprise me at this point.