Workers are removing asbestos from the North Shore's historic St. Ignatius Retreat House, prompting fears among preservationists and community groups that the wrecking ball isn't far off.
North Hills Mayor Marvin Natiss said the work, which has been underway since at least last week, is legal and doesn't endanger the health of nearby residents. The village is sending out a letter this week to that effect.
"Everything is being done absolutely in accordance with state regulations and law," under the supervision of the state Labor Department, Natiss said. "The residents are certainly protected."
But preservationists and local civic groups view the work as bringing the 93-year-old former Jesuit estate where a future pope once stayed a step closer to demolition.
"That is one of the things you do before you demolish a building," said John Bralower, vice chairman of the North Shore Land Alliance preservation group. "I would be shocked if it were not a prelude to demolition."
The new owners of the mansion, Manhasset Bay Group Inc., which bought the 33-acre property for $36.5 million in July from the New York province of Jesuit priests, declined to comment.
Natiss said he doesn't think the asbestos removal necessarily indicates the building will be torn down, since it would have to be removed even if the building was to be renovated. Officials have said the developers plan to turn the property into 66 upscale, single-family homes.
Several local officials are now calling for the 87-room mansion, also known as Inisfada, to be saved. Nassau Legis. Richard J. Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) wrote to state officials supporting a bid to put the building on the state and national registers of historic places.
"This is not just a magnificent structure worthy of preservation because of its astounding architectural beauty, but it has also been a spiritual heart of the Long Island community for decades," Nicolello wrote.
Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) called St. Ignatius a "rare jewel" and said replacing it with a housing development could burden local schools with more students.
"Already faced with a 2 percent cap that does not consider increasing enrollment as a factor, how can the school budget be sustainable if student enrollment balloons under this development?" she said.
Natiss said he has no legal right to stop either the demolition or the planned development. He said that since the Jesuits removed a chapel where the future Pope Pius XII prayed in 1936, the house has little historical value.