Percival Foerderer did things on a grand scale.
He stepped into the family's leather-tanning business in 1903, cornering the market on goatskin gloves and ladies' shoes.
So, too, his appetite for opulence. In 1929, when Foerderer built La Ronda, his country home in Bryn Mawr, it had 51 rooms, a steeplechase, a formal garden, and a Great Hall.
A staff of 27 tended La Ronda and its occupants.
But what worked then doesn't now.
A new buyer is seeking township approval to raze the 14,000-square-foot villa and build a 10,000-square- foot single-family house in its place. The news has alarmed Main Line preservationists, who are making a last-ditch effort to save La Ronda.
"In losing this mansion, we lose a magnificent part of our history," said Lori Salganicoff, a coordinator for the Lower Merion Conservancy in Gladwyne. The group lobbies on preservation issues.
Joseph Kuhls, the buyer's attorney, said practicality was driving the buyer's decision. For one thing, the mansion lacks air-conditioning.
"We've had architects go through the house to explore the continued feasibility of a single-family dwelling, but it doesn't work. In 2009, it just doesn't work anymore as a family's home," said Kuhls. He declined to identify the buyer, who paid $2.5 million for the house and 3.2 acres.
Originally set on 250 acres in Bryn Mawr, La Ronda was the last commission of the architect Addison Mizner, known for his flamboyant Spanish Gothic villas that became the dominant style in Palm Beach, Fla., in the 1920s.
Arts writer Matlack Price described the $3 million mansion in 1930 as "a Castillian villa set in a lovely Spanish garden in Bryn Mawr."
The stucco was dyed a soft Spanish pink, and then treated with baking soda and rock salt to make it seem weathered. The crenulated towers suggested castles of old. The roof was Spanish tile.
Foerderer's grandchildren, middle-aged now, recall the fun they had roaming the grounds with chauffeur John Conicelli and climbing the round tower to Foerderer's bird's nest office in the sky.
"My happiest memory is going up those winding stairs into another world, and going into Grandman's office. It seemed so private. I would walk around there and sort of daydream. No one would know where I was," said grandson Charles Foerderer Ames, 56, of Miami.
Foerderer, whom the grandchildren still call Grandman, lived in the house until a year before his death in 1969 at 84. La Ronda, at 1030 Mount Pleasant Rd., was sold to Villanova University in 1972 and resold later amid a series of lawsuits that resulted in subdivision of most of the land.
Lower Merion preservationists want the mansion saved, arguing it is irreplaceable as Mizner's only surviving work north of the Mason-Dixon line.
"This gilded age of architects really epitomized Palm Beach and Boca Raton, and he did very few things outside of Florida," said architect Frederick L. Bissinger Jr. of Villanova. "If somebody wants to build a big house, go pick on something else. Tear down something that deserves to be torn down."
Preservationists and township officials are eager to learn the buyer's identity. Kuhls would say only that it is a limited partnership called 1030 Mt. Pleasant Road L.P. A search of state and county records offered no hint of who the principals are.
Kuhls said the buyer has the right to do with the property as he or she pleases.
"The idea that a private entity is responsible for maintaining this as an example of a bygone era, it's unconstitutional. There's just not an obligation to do that," Kuhls said.
Preservationists' quest to reverse La Ronda's fate rests with a complex bid to amend a Lower Merion Township ordinance on how the mansion is classified.
The township lists the house as a Class II building in its inventory of historic places. Officials can't stop demolition of a Class II structure; they can only delay it for 90 days.
But commissioners can vote to save Class I buildings from demolition. Preservationists have applied to have the mansion relisted in that category. But that's unlikely to happen within the 90-day window, said Andrea Campisi, senior township planner.
For the building to be saved, all sides agree, the preservationists needed to have acted sooner. The Class I status needed to be in place before the demolition application was filed in March. That leaves those like Jerry Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, without a clear remedy.
"It's a shame they don't appreciate the craftsmanship and legacy this mansion demonstrates," Francis said. "It would be nice if they could find someone to repurpose it."
A historic impact study required by the township and paid for by the buyer recommended that the building be spared - or at least carefully documented before being razed.
At 7 p.m. tomorrow, the Building and Planning Committee will discuss whether to recommend demolition to the Board of Commissioners. The issue is scheduled to come up at the board's meeting May 20, said President Bruce D. Reed. The board meets at 8 p.m.
Reed hopes that a foundation can be formed to try to buy this building now, and others later. The historic landmarks would be reinvented for a purpose not yet known, he said.
"We have people who are expressing interest, not just in this area but from Palm Beach," Reed said.
Kuhls said that when La Ronda was built, Foerderer had to first destroy an 1880s farmhouse.
"Time marches on; to some extent, it's not beyond belief that 60 or 70 years from now, the new house will be demolished to make way for something else," Kuhls said.
The Foerderer grandchildren briefly considered buying back the property, but decided against it for financial and other reasons.
La Ronda's fate hinges on society's decision on what's important, said granddaughter Ethel Foerderer Davis, a New England resident in her 60s.
"It's the heritage of the place, of the era, of the role that the Foerderer family played in Philadelphia, and whether or not that is something that wants to be preserved," Davis said.