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The truth about La Ronda

The preservationists attacking the man who bought and razed the Lower Merion mansion have no one to blame but themselves.

By Philip S. Rosenzweig

Over the past 30 years, the Lower Merion "preservation community" repeatedly and utterly failed to protect the alleged treasure known as La Ronda in spite of multiple opportunities to do so.

The Bryn Mawr residence, which was demolished in 2009, was available as a foreclosure property in the early 1980s; was for sale by Villanova University later on; and was also on the market prior to its purchase by Joseph Kestenbaum, the current owner.

So why did the preservationists begin their lamentations - which continued in a recent Inquirer article - only after the estate had become Kestenbaum's private property?

As a Lower Merion Township commissioner and ardent protector of individual property rights who nevertheless cares about preserving the township's stunning architectural heritage, I was involved in the early discussions about saving La Ronda. In fact, I toured La Ronda and came to the conclusion most fair-minded citizens would: The structure was, in all respects, wholly incompatible with modern residential living.

It was dank, cathedral-like, and in no respect reminiscent of a family home. Its ill maintenance and structural disrepair were so evident, meanwhile, that any reasonable new owner would conclude that the structure could no longer be preserved.

Long-standing apathy

La Ronda was not protected from demolition by a Class 1 historic designation, and no application for such a designation had ever been filed. There was only long-standing apathy on the part of the preservationists, and no purchaser could have known there was any interest in preserving the structure.

As soon as the preservationists showed interest in saving La Ronda, and long before Kestenbaum was revealed as the owner, he offered to sell the property back to the previous owner or to the preservationists at cost. Kestenbaum also offered to let the preservationists move the structure to another site. He complied with requests from the township even though he was not legally obligated to do so, and even though he incurred further costs as a result. In all respects, he acted reasonably, and the preservationists failed to deliver on any of the possible solutions in spite of all their efforts to lay the blame on Kestenbaum.

The new owner has chosen to remain above the fray and not respond to scurrilous, false accusations. But I can no longer sit by and watch a respected member of the Lower Merion community be vilified by the preservationists, who failed in whatever duty they believed they owed the community with regard to this property.

The preservationists apparently believed that the public's right to view the dilapidated structure trumped Kestenbaum's right to do what the law clearly permits. They faulted the owner for exercising his basic property rights. And their failure to raise even a fraction of the funds necessary to save the building demonstrates that, simply put, the structure was not important enough - even among preservationists - to preserve.

Not a McMansion

Those who criticize the Kestenbaum residence built in La Ronda's place are trying to deflect blame for their own failure over many years. Their use of terms such as "McMansion," "McMonstrosity," and "cookie cutter" demonstrates ignorance of what Kestenbaum is actually building.

I have toured the construction site and can report that Kestenbaum is building a home befitting the historic traditions of craftsmanship and old-world elegance that are hallmarks of the Main Line estates of yesteryear. The home is made of hand-chiseled stone, with extensive masonry work and important architectural details throughout.

The home bears no resemblance to the cookie-cutter McMansions found in expensive tract housing elsewhere in the Philadelphia region. To so characterize the Kestenbaum residence is insulting, incendiary, and ignorant.

I have met the neighbors of the new Kestenbaum home. I have spoken to property owners with a real interest in what happens in their community and their neighborhood. Their reaction to the new construction is consistent with what I have reported. The responses of so-called neighbors described recently in The Inquirer are in fact those of a few preservationists who are continuing to pursue their one-sided agenda, regardless of whom they hurt in the process or what falsehoods they promote.

I, for one, congratulate Joseph Kestenbaum and wish him years of joy, good health, and happiness in his new home, which is substantial, impressive, unique, and, most important, a true family home.