Friday, November 4, 2011

A Philadelphia Horror Story

Although construction is almost complete on La Ronda's 16,000+ square foot replacement, Halloween is a fitting season to discuss this monstrosity. Joseph D. Kestenbaum's spiteful demolition of one of Bryn Mawr's most beloved works of art aroused a regional hatred for our new neighbor.

The architecture community's relationship with McMansions can be a bit hypocritical considering they are, after all, designed by architects. The true dispassion for McMansions lies with historians, restorationists, and art lovers, which in a region as old as Philadelphia's, is a large slice of the population.

La Ronda estate before demolition
Bryn Mawr is no stranger to architectural loss. It's portfolio consists of Gilded Age masterpieces and modern infill that tries to recapture its past with cost cutting interpretations of its history. New or old, they often impress. Kestenbaum's new mansion fits the bill, and once the trees grow in it will blend.

But Philadelphian's don't quickly forget, and rich people with lots of art never do. What Kestenbaum did to a community is why his neighbors are throwing stones from their own McMansions. He didn't just buy a Picasso for the frame. He turned down an offer for the naked Picasso so he could strip it for the oil, then shredded the canvas on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It's almost impossible to believe Kestenbaum wasn't driven by spite. It's likely no one will ever know his motivation for denying the offer to move the house, which would have saved him more money than he could have possibly made by scrapping the mansion. No one really knows Kestenbaum. His silence is understandable considering the region's reaction to his act, but the only stance he has made on the subject is one of befuddlement over that reaction.

He's left himself open to attacks, and in an absence of dialogue we have to assume he deserves them. Could it be true that he was so enraged at his neighbors for trying to dictate what he did with his own property that he razed La Ronda during a costly temper tantrum? The only details offered during the media circus that preceded the demolition came from Benjamin Wohl, a wealthy fan of La Ronda's architect, Addison Mizner, who attempted to have the house moved to an adjacent lot at his own cost.

Of the limited reasons Kestenbaum offered of his decision, one was that he had chosen the site for his new home because of the grounds. The obvious flaw in his argument is that the grounds wouldn't have moved with the house to the adjacent lot. The second flaw can be found on Google maps, which show a lot devoid of landscaping, save five or six trees left to perhaps block the glares from his angry neighbors.

Kestenbaum's Bryn Mawr mansion under construction in Bryn Mawr, haunted before it was built

Another argument made during the debacle in 2009 was that an historic 18th Century farmhouse had been razed to build La Ronda in the 1920s, an act that enraged the community at the time. That is an apt analysis, but if you want to debate the merits of the paleohistoric interpretation of La Ronda's existence, you need to replace it with something even more architecturally astounding. 

Let's face it. This man was bitter and wanted to piss people off.

Well he did a fine job, and he certainly created enough space to mise away in solitude, including an indoor hockey rink. He'll have to import friends if he wants to enjoy it.

While the only company he receives from his neighbors in this cushy Main Line enclave will be the passing glares of his neighbors, something tells me he won't be alone. Addison Mizner was an eccentric who died in poverty, and Kestenbaum has branded himself a Dickensian Scrooge. The stage is set for a real life Shamalan horror. The only question remains: How long will it be before the ghost of Mizner and his pet monkey are haunting this McMonster's new residents?


  1. It's weird how nobody seems bothered with the only person that was actually able to stop the demolition of La Ronda... The FORMER OWNER is the one at fault. He could have stopped everything, but he went around pretending he had no idea what was going on until it was too late. He definitely made sure he stripped all he could out of the house just in time. The new house may be a different style, but is just as nice style & quality wise as La Ronda. It's probably built way better than what was there before demolition. Definitely better use of the lot. Here's a nice up close image of the new front of the house:
    There are 9 photos in total on the builder's website. Nice execution and super fine quality. Important to remember that the new owners not only gave the opportunity for anyone to move the house, but also agreed to help fund the move of the house. No takers.

    1. You have it backwards. Benjamin Wohl offered the $300,000 needed to move the house to an adjacent lot. It was the current owner who declined the offer to do so, opting to demolish it.

    2. I love your blog often look to you. Article is good. I love old mansions, castles, houses. Well, of course, the auto-moto.
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  2. Wes, you're the one that has it wrong. Get your facts straight. The former owner held all the power and he CHOSE to sell the house without any protections on the deed. HE did that and he did it all by himself. The new owner did leave a window of time for someone to move it, but at that point the damage had already been done as far as protecting the home.

    1. My information is from varying sources including the Inquirer, the Preservation Alliance, and the Lower Merion Historical Society. If my facts aren't straight, then every media outlet in Philadelphia got the story wrong. This is old news.

    2. Wes is correct. The offer to move the house by Wohl was ultimately refused by Kestenbaum. The reason is unclear, but he may have been too impatient to wait the time it would take for the house to be moved properly. Foundations would need to be in place, etc.

  3. Todd's last name must be Kestenbaum! ;)