In its 80 years, the La Ronda mansion in Bryn Mawr has gone from being a millionaire's palatial home to the subject of an intense debate over its planned demolition by new owners.
It also has spawned a mystery: Who, exactly, owns the place?
Someone paid $6 million in cash to buy the estate in March, using a corporate front. Then, through an attorney, the buyer applied for permission to raze the castlelike, 21-bedroom villa.
With Lower Merion Township nearing a deadline on whether to allow the demolition, neighbors, preservationists, and officials have made the question of its owner an open-ended game of speculation.
"That's the biggest secret in town," said Michael Wylie, the zoning officer. "I don't know anyone who knows."
Interviews with developers, neighbors, preservationists, and other township officials turned up the same response. Government records of the transaction lead to dead-ends.
And although the buyer's attorney points out that there is no legal obligation for the person to come forward, there is considerable dissatisfaction that he or she has not.
"The frustration for a lot of people who love this building is that they can't talk directly to the owner," Mike Weilbacher, president of the Lower Merion Conservancy, said yesterday. "They don't have direct access to the person who has made this decision, and that's atypical."
Preservationists fear losing an irreplaceable slice of local history. La Ronda, 1030 Mount Pleasant Rd., was designed by the famed architect Addison Mizner and built in 1929 for a leather-tanning magnate, Percival Foerderer.
"It would just be absolutely terrible and disgraceful to tear it down," said neighbor John McKelvey, whose house was an outbuilding on La Ronda's original 250-acre estate.
The buyer's attorney, Joseph Kuhls, has said the owner thought the dwelling was an impractical place to raise a family because it is in disrepair and lacks air-conditioning.
The plan is to raze the 17,500-square-foot Spanish Gothic house and build a single-family house of about 10,000 square feet on the 3.2-acre site.
The new dwelling would lack the historic stature of La Ronda as the only remaining house in Pennsylvania built by Mizner, whose flamboyant architecture is so prevalent in South Florida that an 11-foot-tall statue of him stands in Boca Raton. The preservationists hope the new owner can be talked out of demolition or persuaded to sell La Ronda to a possible deep-pocketed benefactor.
But first, they want to find the owner.
"To have a dialogue, you have to know who they are," Township Commissioner Mark E. Taylor said. "In my personal view, it's the right thing to do. It's very disturbing that they won't come through."
Clues about the buyer in public records are scant. In the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds Office, documents show a partnership under attorney Arthur J. Kania sold the house and adjoining land for $6 million on March 10 to the corporate entity, 1030 Mount Pleasant Road LP. The only name listed for the buyer is its manager, Paul W. Baskowsky of the Saul Ewing law firm in Center City. He has refused to say who is behind the partnership.
Kania has refused to comment.
Similarly, incorporation documents filed with the Pennsylvania Secretary of State's Office show that the corporation that bought the house was set up by Christina M. Carry, a legal assistant at Saul Ewing, and is owned by another new corporation: 1030 Mount Pleasant Road GP, L.L.C. No owner is listed for that company.
There is no mortgage on file for the property. Kuhls' signature and the limited partnership's name are on the demolition-permit application. A real estate transaction service lists no name for La Ronda's buyer.
Township officials said they had heard only of possible names.
"It's not a way to get off to a good start with the neighbors," Taylor said. "They'll become a pariah to the community."
This week, Kuhls said only that there were several owners. "We are not disclosing their names at this time," he said.
The name of a possible La Ronda owner was passed to a reporter, but efforts to get him to talk have gone nowhere.
At the man's office in Conshohocken, he ducked behind a building column in the lobby when a reporter approached, then hurried up a stairway and into an elevator back down to his office. He did not return calls.
The clock is ticking on the demolition permit, which township commissioners are scheduled to vote on June 3.
"I wish we had more time," Commissioner Cheryl B. Gelber said yesterday, "and I wish we had a buyer who wanted to spend time exploring his options."