Gone (Not Forgotten)

IN YEARS PAST, I spent some time in the Sun Belt states. And though I stayed only a few years in the relentlessly modern cities of Houston and Atlanta, it was long enough to miss the indelible connection to the past that pervades Philadelphia and its western suburbs.

I could be wrong, but it seems that tearing down some old mansion in Houston’s tony River Oaks section wouldn’t have elicited so much as a shrug in that forward-looking city. (Imploding the Astrodome, on the other hand … ) But here, the destruction last October of 80-year-old La Ronda was a preservationist controversy of front-page proportions.

Ironically, its regal, Spanish Gothic/Mediterranean design couldn’t have been more aesthetically out of place in Bryn Mawr. It was as if the 17,500-square-foot, 21-bedroom manse had been uprooted from some palatial oceanfront compound in La Jolla, Calif.—or, more accurately, Palm Beach, Fla., home to its famed architect, Addison Mizner. But this hardly devalued La Ronda’s historic splendor among its many passionate and vocal admirers.

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Media’s David Nelson Wren told Main Line Today senior writer J.F. Pirro that La Ronda’s demise actually left him feeling physically ill. “That house was a piece of art. They might as well have been burning a Rembrandt in the front yard,” says the independent scholar, who recently completed an exhaustively researched manuscript on Ardrossan, the fabled estate in Radnor Township.

For this month’s cover story, “Past Perfect,” Pirro spoke with Wren and numerous other preservation-minded Main Liners, including Ross Mitchell, vice president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, who was part of a coalition formed to save La Ronda. Mitchell offers new details on the mansion’s last days, along with insight on how such a catastrophe might be avoided in the future.

Among other things, Mitchell tells Pirro that La Ronda’s demolition should prompt a thorough re-examination of the Main Line’s commitment to protecting its diverse historic assets. Already, its razing has prompted a pledge to foster broad community support for preservation initiatives to address the weaknesses in Lower Merion’s ordinance, and to lobby the state for the right to offer substantial economic incentives to owners of historically—and architecturally—significant properties. “By taking these steps,” says La Ronda advocate Kathleen Abplanalp, “other currently vulnerable buildings may avoid La Ronda’s fate.”

Buildings like Ardrossan, whose future is also precarious—and shouldn’t be. “It’s the last of the great Main Line estates,” says Wren. “The rest are gone or spread to the wind. They’re all subdivided.”

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!