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Remembering life at La Ronda

October 1, 2009

larondaBy Bonnie L. Cook Inquirer Staff Writer

Suzanne Atterbury remembers sending her playmates into La Ronda’s hedgerow maze – “They would come out crying.”

Dominic Conicelli remembers his father’s being summoned at all hours to chauffeur the widow Foerderer – “his Madame,” Dom’s mother said – in a black Cadillac.

And everyone who lived or worked there remembers Christmas at La Ronda. Cooking smells wafted down the corridors from a cast-iron stove as big as a buffalo. A hundred radiators clanked with the startup strain of heating the Bryn Mawr mansion’s many rooms. Trimming the towering yule tree took two weeks, says former owner Arthur J. Kania. Then, “the kids would explode into the room, looking for presents,” he remembers. “These are the kinds of things it is hard to let go of.”

Despite outcry from preservationists, a Florida man’s offer to buy and move it, and a last-minute rescue effort by the head of Lower Merion’s commissioners, the demolition of La Ronda is under way. A sales agreement makes today the first day the new owner, Joseph D. Kestenbaum, can carry out his plan to tear down famed architect Addison Mizner’s final, 51-room creation to make way for a new house with a curving driveway and a pool.

When word spread that the castle might fall, families who lived at La Ronda or waited on its occupants came forward with nostalgic glimpses of life there. Ethel Davis, granddaughter of Percival Foerderer, the leather-tanning magnate who built La Ronda in 1929, recalls Christmases in the 1960s when she was in her teens. The Foerderers lived at La Ronda from 1929 until 1968. “Grandman,” as they called Percival Foerderer, had chauffeur John Conicelli drive the black Cadillac to 30th Street Station to pick up relatives arriving from Connecticut. “He would say, ‘Hurry up, we’ve got to get back home in time to catch Santa Claus,’ but of course Santa Claus wouldn’t be there, but the lights would be up,” Davis said.

John Conicelli started at La Ronda in 1929 as a weed-puller. He stayed 42 years, becoming the Foederers’ driver and personal assistant – and a child-friendly presence in the adult-centered house. “When I was down there as a child, John would go out and pick flowers, and I followed him around,” Davis said. While John drove the Foerderers in the 1940s, his son, Dom, would water the potted plants on the patio “until I got tired.” When he got older, Dom Conicelli cut the grass on the 250-acre estate, using a tractor mower. “I don’t remember getting paid, but it kept me out of trouble,” said Conicelli, 76 and retired. The Conicellis didn’t own a car, so father and son walked three miles each way from their home in Conshohocken up the hill on Route 23 to work at La Ronda. Foerderer found an old station wagon for Johnny Conicelli. That put him “on call” to run errands for the Foerderers – at all hours. Dom Conicelli remembers the calls: “My mother used to say, ‘Your Madame’s on the line.’ ” Little Dom went inside the mansion only when the Foerderers were away. He gazed at the bathroom fixtures. “They were probably brass, but they looked like gold to me.” To him, Foerderer adults seemed “aloof” from their employees – up to 30 cooks, butlers, maids, gardeners, dining-room servers, a stable manager, grooms, and drivers who took care of the 18,000-square-foot mansion, its grounds, outbuildings, and occupants.

Percival Foerderer typed 15 pages of gardening instructions for the landscaping crew, but he hardly ever spoke to his driver’s son. “One time, Mr. Foerderer came out and asked me to pull weeds for 50 cents an hour,” Conicelli said. Sometimes, he would sneak into the Cadillac while it was parked in the garage and pretend he was the boss. “I would sit in the back and talk to my buddies in the front seat over the intercom.” On summer days he might play with the Foerderers’ little daughter, Florence. The two would splash in the cross-shaped pool in La Ronda’s gardens. “If it was hot enough, you jumped in,” Dom said. Or, if he was especially lucky, he got to ride one of the estate’s horses, a mare named Black Beauty. He remembers the other horses stabled at La Ronda: Baloney and Fiddlesticks. There was a steeplechase, too; his father drove the Foerderers to the Devon Horse Show and the Radnor Hunt.

Dom Conicelli was a rambunctious teenager. After he got his own car, he’d climb in the window of La Ronda’s garage to steal gasoline – though his father had a key. Later, he owned up to his father about the theft. “I knew it. I didn’t want to make it too easy for you,” he said his father replied.

He finally left his job at La Ronda to enroll in college – but he didn’t go after all. So Foerderer offered him a job in his Center City office at 50 cents an hour. Instead, Conicelli joined a labor gang at Alan Wood Steel Co. at 85 cents per hour. “That was not too bright a decision,” Dom said. But it paid off in the end. He started a car dealership. When his fledgling business foundered, Ethel Foerderer, Percival’s widow, lent him $10,000 in 1963. Conicelli repaid the debt with interest 10 years later. By then, it was easier – the Conicelli Auto Group was on its way to becoming one of the best-known business names in the region. John Conicelli, meanwhile, stayed on as an assistant to Ethel Foerderer after her husband died in 1969. The ailing widow had a nurse, but Dom Conicelli said, “I don’t think she ever trusted anyone but my dad.” His father used to set La Ronda’s burglar alarms each night. “Where’s Dad?” a family member would ask. He remembers his mother’s arch reply: “Tucking his Madame in.”

 

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The Kid in the Castle

Suzanne Gallagher’s schoolmates nicknamed her “the kid in the castle.” Her parents bought La Ronda in the early 1970s, and the family lived there until 1981. “It was incredible. I loved the architecture,” Suzanne Gallagher Atterbury said. “That’s what inspired me to go to Harcum [College] and study interior design.”

The 14 Gallagher children and stepchildren ate in the kitchen “in shifts,” she said – except at Christmas. Then, the family dined at the 20-foot table in the formal dining room. Their Christmas tree was a Douglas fir, as tall as the table was long. Men from Farley Bros. landscapers lugged it in from Lancaster County. Mammoth logs in the fireplace seemed to warm half the house. The fire “would stay lit for weeks,” Atterbury remembered.

The Farley brothers lived at La Ronda – in the gatehouse. “We had cables and a little gadget” to raise the tree, Tom Farley, 69, remembered. “The tree was so huge, nobody could see under it anyway. Once we got it up, the little Gallaghers decorated it. It was magic when it was all lit up.”

Percival Foerderer was long gone by then, but Suzanne Gallagher delighted in running up and down the spiral staircase in the tower that led to “Grandman’s office.” When her schoolmates came over, she took them into La Ronda’s maze of boxwood hedges. She kept the way out a secret. “We used to torture our friends,” she said, but they clamored to visit again and again.

In 1983, lawyer Kania bought the house. His family lived there until June 2008. “It became a love affair,” says Kania, 78. “Four of our children were married there. We had our 50th wedding anniversary there. Christmas was something special.” The Kanias bought their towering Christmas tree from the same place that sold trees for John Wanamaker in Center City, Kania said. Then they invited up to 300 friends, children and all, for “Christmas at La Ronda.” A toy train was set up in the ballroom. Nutcracker toy soldiers were displayed. Kania played Santa Claus. His children learned golf on La Ronda’s putting green. But when the children were grown, the Kanias decided 18,000 square feet was too much for two people.

The couple moved out in 2008, but they regard their La Ronda years as magical. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We will always have fond memories,” Kania said. The connection to La Ronda lived on, too, for those who tended its flowers and pulled its weeds. Tom Farley remembered seeing Dom Conicelli’s father, John, visit the mansion years after his chauffeur days were over. “Johnny would come and chat with us,” Farley said. “He was lonely for the place and kept coming for old time’s sake.”

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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