Mansion's pending sale draws protests

The estate was developed between 1916 and 1920 The estate was developed between 1916 and 1920 in North Hills and was donated to the Society of Jesus in 1937. (June 10, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Community residents and civic leaders are protesting the pending sale -- and possible demolition -- of a magnificent "Great Gatsby"-era mansion where a future pope once stayed.

The sale of St. Ignatius Retreat House on Nassau County's Gold Coast is expected to close in late July, with housing developers planning to subdivide the 33-acre site, according to the Jesuit priests selling the property.

The Jesuits say they cannot continue to operate the center because it is too expensive.

Local civic associations are seeking to preserve the "historic jewel," and residents have organized a letter-writing and phone campaign opposing the planned development.

"I think it is an atrocity," said Patricia Eren, a librarian from New Hyde Park who has attended retreats at the center for 15 years. "Too much of Long Island is being paved over to make mini-malls and condos, and we're becoming one huge parking lot."

The Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations has come out against the possible demolition, not only because of the 87-room, castle-like mansion's historic value, but because of the potential impact of a housing development on local schools, roads and other infrastructure, said the group's president, Richard Bentley.

The Rev. Vincent Cooke, who is handling the sale for the Jesuits' New York Province, said they have a firm offer in hand with developers he declined to identify. Cooke said the potential buyers have not decided whether to demolish the mansion.

The listing price for the mansion and land was $49 million. The Jesuits have not divulged details of the pending sale or development plans.

Community members opposed to the sale are urging the Jesuits to break the contract and pursue another offer made by a Queens-based group that wants to turn the mansion into a spiritual wellness center for patients with cancer, major concussions and other ailments.

But Cooke said that group, Community Wellness Centers of America, never made a firm offer and presented its proposal after the Jesuits had already gone to contract.

"Am I supposed to cancel a contract that is already signed, sealed and delivered in order to negotiate with these guys who never put a single cent on the table?" Cooke asked Wednesday.

He noted that "the most valuable part" of the mansion, the second-floor St. Genevieve Chapel, will be dismantled and transferred to Fordham University, where it will be reconstructed. The Vatican granted rare special permission for the chapel to be placed inside the mansion.

The North Hills building was completed in 1920 by leading Roman Catholic philanthropists Nicholas and Genevieve Brady. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII, stayed at the mansion during a monthlong trip to the United States in 1936.

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