Last Oct. 1, the region’s finest example of Mediterranean Revival architecture was razed by its new owner, Joseph Kestenbaum. It was the last great mansion built by Addison Mizner, the famed architect who fashioned Palm Beach, Fla.’s legendary look. Weeks prior, its demise had already begun when previous owner Arthur Kania exercised his salvage rights to its contents.
Without a Class I designation in Lower Merion Township, there were no legal remedies to prevent La Ronda’s destruction when the township’s 90-day teardown moratorium expired. Ross Mitchell, vice president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, was part of an active coalition formed to save the mansion. He answers our post-mortem questions.
MLT: What happened behind the scenes?
RM: When the demolition permit was initially sought, it was revealed that La Ronda was purchased through two separate legal entities that concealed the purchaser’s name. All communication was conducted through an attorney. Since La Ronda was designated a Class II building—a designation that allows demolition—the chances of [protecting] the building against a demolition-minded owner were daunting. He rejected all offers to find a way to preserve it.
MLT: What went wrong?
RM: As a National Register of Historic Places-eligible building, La Ronda was worthy of a Class I listing. But when La Ronda was recommended, then-owner Kania objected. Historically, the township’s commissioners have chosen not to pursue Class I listing without an owner’s consent.
MLT: How can such a travesty be diverted in the future?
RM: With Pennsylvania’s long and rich architectural history, the Commonwealth should pass a strong preservation ordinance. Tourism is a major industry, and preserving the buildings that document our history should be an easy decision for the state Legislature. We’ll use the destruction of La Ronda as a rallying point.
MLT: What’s the bigger message?
RM: The senseless demolition of La Ronda speaks to our society’s lack of communal sensibility. From a larger sense of place and sense of community, this building was part of our shared history. It was a work of art. Many wealthy people buy art and donate it to a museum as their legacy. You don’t often find them destroying a masterpiece because all they wanted was the frame.
MLT: What will Kestenbaum’s legacy be?
RM: We will long remember his “gift” of destruction. I have no idea what could be behind his one-minded motivation. Our preservation group had dinner with the grandchildren of the original owner (manufacturer and philanthropist Percival Foerderer), and they’re all appalled.