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La Ronda buyer decries 'public circus'

In his first public comment since being identified as the buyer of Bryn Mawr's historic La Ronda mansion, Joseph D. Kestenbaum yesterday fired back at the "disingenuous" outcry and "public circus" over his plans to raze the castle-like villa.

In his first public comment since being identified as the buyer of Bryn Mawr's historic La Ronda mansion, Joseph D. Kestenbaum yesterday fired back at the "disingenuous" outcry and "public circus" over his plans to raze the castle-like villa.

"The fact is that there is no one interested in providing the finances necessary to preserve La Ronda," Kestenbaum said in a statement issued by a public-relations firm, which acknowledges he is behind the corporations that purchased the house.

Although the possible demolition of the 80-year-old structure has provoked a preservationist controversy, Kestenbaum said the house "was a property that no one wanted," and he contended he could find no taker for it shortly after he bought it earlier this year.

Kestenbaum, whose statement was distributed last night by spokesman Jeff Jubelirer, also asked "the community to do the right thing" and cease efforts to stop him from razing the structure, which he can legally do Oct. 1.

After months of controversy and secrecy, the public-relations effort might not be enough to attract the Welcome Wagon when Kestenbaum greets his new neighbors.

"It's not going to be with open arms," said Douglas Mellor, a neighbor of La Ronda.

On Monday, longtime La Ronda owner Arthur J. Kania said, with the aid of his own public-relations firm, that Kestenbaum was the home's buyer. The news turned a suburb's long-running historical preservation debate into something of a personal affair for Kestenbaum, a Plymouth Meeting-based investor who bought La Ronda using a corporate name nearly seven months ago.

He now has future neighbors who associate him with both the mansion's potential destruction and the lengthy construction period of replacing it. And preservationists yesterday called it "unfortunate and unnecessary" that so much of their fight to save it had been conducted through a lawyer who would not name Kestenbaum.

"We think it's unfortunate that we weren't able to put a face on the partnership," said Lori Salganicoff, historic-preservation coordinator for the Lower Merion Conservancy, "and that we weren't able to speak with him or his family about the decisions to tear down La Ronda."

Until this week, Kestenbaum had not overtly been linked to the mansion he bought from Kania for $6 million. However, the two are now quarreling publicly over the salvage rights to fixtures hauled out of La Ronda, and their dispute has become an obstacle to a Florida man's bid to buy La Ronda and move it off the land where Kestenbaum wants to build a new house.

Kania's spokesman, Jay Devine, said yesterday Kestenbaum had required a confidentiality agreement as part of the purchase.

Kania said Monday the agreement was first broken by Kestenbaum, freeing him - and others - to comment directly on what had been a well-groomed suburb's summerlong mystery over the fate of an aging landmark.

"I think it's apparent that he concealed his identity because he was aware that this was not something which would be met with public acclaim," said Lower Merion Township commissioners president Bruce D. Reed, "as indeed it should not be."

Although Kestenbaum's identity had been concealed, his designs for the 6.34-acre lot have been laid out in public filings.

His demolition permit for La Ronda can be used Oct. 1, and a site-development plan filed with the township this summer shows that the 18,000-square-foot mansion built in 1929 to the design of famed architect Addison Mizner is to be replaced by a single 10,000-square-foot house with a curved driveway of 14,110 square feet. That plan contained few details about what the new structure would look like.

In his statement, Kestenbaum said a five-house subdivision would be legal for the lot.

Neighbors have been wary about what the immense demolition and replacement would mean for their sedate section of the suburbs.

"It's going to be a couple of years of mess," said John Amsterdam, whose home adjoins La Ronda's lot, "but I don't see that I'm going to have a whole lot of choice."

Though Kestenbaum's plan for new construction is being treated as an inevitability, the fate of the house in his path is still playing out.

Florida real estate developer Benjamin C. Wohl has offered to pay Kestenbaum for the La Ronda house and then move it to an adjacent property, but he has said Kestenbaum and his lawyer had been difficult negotiators.

"The whole house lies in their hands," Wohl said yesterday. "If they want the house to be moved, they can orchestrate that in an hour. We can have an agreement in an hour."

Wohl said his offers for the house had been met with a series of demands to settle outside salvage rights first.

In his statement, Kestenbaum said Wohl this week "chose not to pursue the purchase" after failing to "negotiate away the salvage rights."

Wohl said that the assertion was untrue and that he wanted to fly to Philadelphia tomorrow to try to negotiate a deal with Kestenbaum in person.

"We're pursuing it every second," Wohl said.

Jubelirer could not say how Kestenbaum would handle the offer.

Reed said last night that former state Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman had agreed to mediate a negotiation, if Kestenbaum agreed to one.

Kestenbaum's statement also says La Ronda lacked proper maintenance as it "sat unoccupied for almost three years," though neighbors have said the period was far less.

Devine could not be reached last night for comment on that assertion.

As the arguments among Kania, Kestenbaum, and Wohl play out, preservationists have been watching the calendar and wondering whether the October deadline will arrive before a deal does.

Salganicoff said the Lower Merion Conservancy would like to see Kania take the salvage-rights argument into court to request a demolition-stalling injunction, though Devine doubted it could happen.

"Anything that can delay it coming down, we think, is a good think, Salganicoff said.