As Tom Richter, 56, toured his childhood home at 117 Raynham Rd., two Sundays ago in Merion, nothing seemed quite the way it was. The iron fence enclosing the mansion still hugged the outer perimeter of the 3.57 acres surrounding the house, and the stonework of the exterior remained. But as he showed his daughter Isabella, 21, the home for the first time, it seemed smaller than he remembered.
The silver and gold leaves his parents adorned their furniture and interior with was gone. Rooms were divided at awkward angles, today's traditional wallpaper replaced the silk material his parents had put up, and aside from "the usual sensations you get in a place you lived so long ago," Richter determined the 86-year-old mansion to be "obsolete," he said.
So when Richter heard David Magerman, Gladwyne local and founder of the Kohelet Foundation, bought the home with plans to raze it and build a new home in its place, he didn't wince much. His visit two weeks ago came after Magerman hired Pre-demolition Sales to help sell off the contents of the home, which included intricate chandeliers and railings, removing flagstone and stripping the library's cherry wood.
"The house has been poorly changed over the years," said Richter, who helped his mother Irene Richter sell the home in 1986. "It just wasn't the kind of house people would want to live in."
Richter lived in the 12,000 square-foot-structure from ages 2 to 30, often by himself, as his parents flocked to Miami for the winter while he attended the Episcopal Academy and his sister Melissa Richter went on to college. His father, well-known Philadelphia personal injury lawyer Nathan Richter, died in the home in 1974, and his mother Irene Richter stayed at the home for 12 years after her husband's death.
Noting the decrepit window installations and aging heating and cooling systems he dealt with while living there, Richter said the cost to rehab a home like his old residence wouldn't be worth it. Richter now rehabs old structures for restaurants or apartments, such as his Conshohocken eateries 401 Diner and Isabella.
But not everyone's reaction to demolishing the home has been as supportive as Richter's. A resident of Raynham Road who wished to remain anonymous said the township notified her and area residents about the impending demolition – for which the permit has not yet been approved – but called it a disappointment to the historical nature of the home, deeming it "an environmental waste."
A previous Neighbors post highlighting the gutting of the mansion brought also evoked disappointed reactions.
"My wife of 35 years, Melissa Richter, grew up in that house, and I am horrified anybody could consider tearing it down," one commenter wrote. "The amazing stone structure can never be duplicated, and I cannot imagine anybody with the amount of money the new owner has could not design a renovation plan that could use that unique frame to design a modern house. Houses like this are one in a million, and it brings tears to my eyes to think it will be destroyed."
Another commenter noted her best friend moved from Wallingford to the home, and as children, they both thought they'd walk their individual weddings down the grand staircase.
"A bigger house, really?" she wrote. "I know things change, but this makes me feel sad."
Located in a private section of Merion Station, the home changed hands in February 2011. The previous owner, Paul Lee Newman, lived at the residence since 1997. The house was assessed at $975,000 as of 2011, according to tax records.
Magerman submitted a permit to demolish the home along with a permit requesting to build a new, larger dwelling in November. The plans for the new home include space for two studies, a billiards room and a gym, according to documents submitted to Lower Merion Township.
The township hasn't approved the permits yet, but Assistant Director of the Building and Planning department Art Noel said the applicant is simply following procedure. Because Magerman is not asking for an exception to the zoning code, the demolition of the home won't go before the township's Zoning Hearing Board. And, since the Raynham Road mansion isn't deemed historical, the Historical Architecture Review Board won't have to approve the exterior design of the residence Magerman proposed to replace the current structure.
Though Montgomery County records show the home was built in 1925, Lori Salganicoff, the historic preservation director of the Lower Merion Conservancy, said maps show the original structure was replaced in 1936.
Salganicoff found out about the demolition at the beginning of November when Magerman applied for the permit through B.J. Drueding Builders LLC, a construction company based in Wayne.
"We've spoken with the architect who worked with the owner to try to save the building, but they've decided to rebuild," Salganicoff said, adding that the home used to be on the township's Historic Resources Inventory list but the past owners opted not to make it a historical home, which Noel confirmed.
"The township has the ability to force the listing, but it has chosen not to, most notably with La Ronda," Salganicoff said in reference to a 1929 Bryn Mawr mansion demolished in 2009 to the abhorrence of some community members.
Though Richter said he didn't think there was any historical significance to his childhood home, the grandeur of the mansion hasn't escaped him.
"My father grew up in Southwest Philly sleeping four to a bed, helping my grandparents run a small hardware store," he said of Nathan Richter. "When he had all kinds of thrones to success, he was so proud of himself. The way the house sits on the top of that hill surrounded by columns and an iron fence – it was an attraction to someone who wants to show off."
"We did have some great parties there," Richter added. "With so many people and kegs, it was practically a frat house."