Last-ditch effort to save Jesuit retreat

A last-ditch effort is underway to try to A last-ditch effort is underway to try to prevent demolition of a majestic Gold Coast mansion that a future pope once made his headquarters during a monthlong U.S. tour. Photo Credit: handout

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A last-ditch effort is underway to try to prevent demolition of a majestic Gold Coast mansion that a future pope once made his headquarters during a monthlong U.S. tour.

With a sale nearing completion, a coalition of civic and preservation groups is trying to gain official historic status for the St. Ignatius Retreat House in North Hills -- also known as Inisfada, or "long island" in Gaelic.

The coalition is also lobbying the local mayor through petitions, emails and phone calls to pledge that he won't sign any demolition orders.

But North Hills Mayor Marvin Natiss said he will let the buyer and seller do with the property whatever the law permits -- including knocking it down.

"I will not interfere with whatever the Jesuit order" that owns the mansion "wants to do," he said.

Natiss said "the only historical significance" the building has "from the church's point of view" was the inside chapel that is being moved from the property to Fordham University.

Minus the chapel, he said: "I don't know if it [the building] has any historical significance."

Richard Bentley, president of the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations, which is leading the effort to save the mansion, responded that Inisfada "is a jewel that is right in the backyard of Manhasset. To allow a historic gem in our midst to be lost -- that's what their village will become known for."

The groups are applying to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to have Inisfada placed on state and national registers of historic places. That would not legally prevent demolition, but it would put pressure on local politicians to preserve the house, Bentley said.

The 87-room "Great Gatsby"-era mansion, which Jesuit priests ran as a retreat house for a half-century, was put on the market last year for $49 million.

The order said in June that it expected to close on the property in late July. The Rev. Vincent Cooke, who is handling the sale for the Jesuits, declined to comment this week.

Natiss said he met with the buyers recently, but he would not identify them. He said they plan an upscale development of single-family homes on the 33-acre property. He said the developers have not decided whether to demolish Inisfada.

Bentley accused the mayor of being interested mainly in generating tax revenue from the planned housing project. "He's looking at the dollar signs and counting his silver coins," he said.

The 72,000-foot Tudor-Elizabeth house was completed in 1920 by industrialist Nicholas Brady and his wife, Genevieve, who were leading Catholic philanthropists. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII, stayed there in 1936. The next year, Mrs. Brady, a widow by then, donated the house to the Jesuits.

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