A last-ditch effort is underway to try to prevent demolition...

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. Credit: handout

A majestic Gold Coast mansion where a future pope once stayed has sold for more than $36 million -- one of the biggest North Shore real estate deals in recent years, sources said.

The Manhasset Bay Group, Inc., a development firm, completed the purchase of the St. Ignatius Retreat House on Wednesday and is already facing a legal challenge that aims to prevent the mansion from being demolished.

The 87-room mansion, set on 33 acres in North Hills, was listed last year at $49 million by the New York province of the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic priests who owned the property.

A lawyer for Manhasset Bay Group declined to provide any information about the buyers or their development plans Thursday.

The 72,000-square-foot Tudor Elizabethan house, where the future Pope Pius XII stayed in 1936 during a monthlong tour of the United States, sold for $36.5 million, sources said.

"It's one of the highest, if not the highest, sales on the North Shore," said Paul Mateyunas of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty and a Gold Coast historian. "I hope the new buyers realize what a gem they have purchased."

He said he would like to see the property preserved as a historic hotel, condominiums or an exclusive location for special events such as weddings.

The Jesuits have said previously that the buyer has not decided whether to preserve or demolish the house. The developer plans to turn the property into upscale single-family homes, according to North Hills village officials. Zoning for the property allows two houses per acre.

SynergyFirst International, a group that wants to buy the house and preserve it as a health center, challenged the Jesuits in Nassau County Supreme Court Thursday to try to prevent the sale.

Brooklyn attorney Alexander Levkovich, representing SynergyFirst, withdrew his motion for a temporary restraining order after he learned that the sale had gone through and that the Jesuits were no longer the owners.

Judge Randy Sue Marber told Levkovich he was going after the wrong organization and was unlikely to approve the restraining order.

Levkovich said later that he plans to be back in court next week now that he knows who the new owners are.

Local preservation, business and civic groups have launched a petition drive to save the building. But North Hills Mayor Marvin Natiss has said he is not sure the mansion has any historical value.

The home was completed in 1920 by industrialist Nicholas Brady and his wife, Genevieve, who were leading Catholic philanthropists. Genevieve Brady donated the mansion to the Jesuits in 1937 after her husband's death.

For a half-century, the Jesuits ran the mansion as a retreat that attracted people from as far away as China and Australia.

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