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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: May 27, 2009
Byline: Derrick Nunnally

Lower Merion officials raising funds to try to save La Ronda

Unable to convince the buyer to back off demolition plans for the La Ronda mansion, Lower Merion Township officials will now try passing the hat to save the historic villa.

Bruce D. Reed, president of the Board of Commissioners, said yesterday he and others were assembling a foundation that would collect donations to try to buy the 80-year-old castle-like estate in Bryn Mawr.

The news that an unnamed new owner, who bought the house for $6 million in March through a corporate front, plans to raze the place has drawn national interest, Reed said.

The Spanish-styled villa built by leather-tanning titan Percival Foerderer appears beloved enough, Reed said, that a fund-raising drive might succeed.

"We've never had the degree of concern that we have with La Ronda," Reed said.

Although Reed and other preservation-minded officials don't yet have a plan for what it would be used for, their first priority is the approaching deadline on the application to demolish La Ronda. Township commissioners are scheduled to consider the owner's request on June 3.

Reed said it was "quite likely" they would order a 90-day moratorium on the demolition in an effort to try to find a way to save the house.

Reed said the owner's attorney, Joseph Kuhls, seemed receptive to the foundation idea. Neither Kuhls nor Paul W. Baskowsky, another attorney representing the buyer, returned calls yesterday.

Reed and the preservationist groups working to create the foundation with commissioners have an immense question in their path: Can La Ronda, built in the financial crash year of 1929, be saved by generosity in another time of financial troubles?

What they're attempting is not without local precedent. After developers planned in 2000 to tear down the 18th-century Black Horse Inn in Flourtown, local fund-raisers and Springfield Township cooperated to carve the inn out of its surrounding land for restoration and commercial use.

But the prospect of matching — or exceeding — the $6 million paid for La Ronda by the buyer who has yet to come forward, and doing it during a recession, appears daunting.

Anita Franchetti, a field representative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said assembling a foundation to buy La Ronda was "just not a reality, unfortunately" for her agency, though it could provide guidance for one if it came together.

Mike Weilbacher, president of the Lower Merion Conservancy, said talks on a La Ronda effort were too preliminary to detail. Reed said many aspects of the situation — a timeline and renovation possibilities among them — were still up for discussion.

Reed said that even if the foundation were established as a nonprofit, he doubted the owner could be enticed to donating La Ronda for a tax break.

"I think they would probably want to just sell it," Reed said.