Tuesday, September 1, 2009

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 philly.com 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.


carla said...

May I just say "thank you"? This post is so awesome.

Thank you again from a new reader.

Weeping for La Ronda said...

If Kalina had salvage rights, how can Kestenbaum get away with his removal of so much already? If ignorance is bliss, than Kestenbum must be the happiest man on earth.

Rachel said...

Well explained. I'm heartbroken over the loss of this building and appalled by Kania and Kestenbaum's lack of regard for the overall good of the community and the region.

Kate said...

Thanks, all. I just cannot comprehend this guy's position.

Anonymous said...

The Kestenbaum's are the Bryn Mawr Hillbillies.

Anonymous said...

Well, another Mainline landmark has been demolished People don't believe in preseving famous landmarks

Sash Windows Glasgow said...

It is such a shame when preservation is not allowed.

Ginny said...

YEARS later! I found this and googled the estate - here's where some of the things enter up:


Ginny said...

YEARS later - I googled Laronda and found this article - looks like some of the items ended up here: