What’s become Long Island’s most luxurious shopping center — a landscaped destination for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Burberry, Ferragamo and more — began more than a half-century ago as a strip mall where locals did food shopping.
Frank Castagna, working at the family business his dad cofounded in 1922 as a masonry contractor, helped transform that strip mall they owned into Long Island’s Fifth Avenue: today’s Americana Manhasset.
Starting in the 1950s, Frank helped grow the firm to become a real estate developer with holdings across the region. He was involved in some of Long Island’s biggest construction undertakings, including helping build the Nassau Coliseum, renovate what is now Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, and do projects at Adelphi and Stony Brook universities.
A resident of Brookville, Frank Castagna died at home July 7. He was 91.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to Andrea Sanders, the spokeswoman for Castagna Realty Co., which is the successor to the business Frank Castagna’s dad helped establish nearly 100 years ago.
With wife Rita, Frank Castagna was also a philanthropist who donated to dozens of causes, including hospitals, libraries, museums and campaigns to help people with disabilities and to combat domestic violence and child abuse. Among the many charities the couple supported were the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Nassau County Museum of Art, and the Viscardi Center, which educates children and young adults with disabilities.
“He doesn’t have a town named after him like William Levitt or a skyscraper like Donald Trump. His is not a household name nor would he want it to be. In his low-key manner, however, Frank Castagna has spent a lifetime influencing the way Long Islanders live and shop,” said a 1997 New York Times profile focused on his philanthropy.
And Castagna, sometimes with Rita, was a longtime contributor to dozens of political campaigns, and parties, at all levels of government, according to state Board of Elections records.
He gave to those of Republicans and Democrats: Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) when he was the Nassau County executive but also successor Edward Mangano. He gave to Denis Dillon, the incumbent who was running for county district attorney, and then to now-Rep. Kathleen Rice, who defeated Dillon for district attorney, according to Newsday. At one point in 2012, Newsday reported, Castagna gave Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s campaign the largest individual contribution of the period — after supporting Rick Lazio in the 2010 Republican primary for governor.
The roots of Americana Manhasset, the company’s flagship, date to a land purchase in the mid-1950s by his dad’s company that Castagna had recently joined out of college. Even then, Castagna’s vision was to make it a luxury destination. But as the economy weakened, and talks collapsed to bring in Saks Fifth Avenue and then Henri Bendel as anchor department stores, he signed long-term leases for discount stores and similar retailers. But as those leases expired, he turned down “potentially lucrative tenants to focus instead on luxury,” Newsday reported in 2006.
Today, that 220,000 square foot, open-air mall off Northern Boulevard has more than 60 stores and designer labels, including Tesla, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Chanel, Hirshleifers, Ermenegildo Zegna, Christian Louboutin, Theory, Prada, Armani and Tiffany & Co.
“Castagna has succeeded in linking the center to the surrounding Gold Coast community, tapping into the charity/socialite/hard-core shopping circuit of Long Island,” Newsday wrote in 2006.
Howard Kroplick, a former North Hempstead town historian, recalled what was there before Castagna turned the mall upscale: a movie theater, a five-and-dime, a Swensons, a supermarket.
“I remember when that was just a strip mall over there. He got involved and made it the Fifth Avenue of Long Island, basically — one of the most attractive shopping centers in the world, and it’s right here on the North Shore of Long Island.”
In 2006, Castagna told Newsday of the mall: “It has a cohesive energy to it, and it says what we want it to say. That this is the home of the great luxury brands, the successful luxury brands.”
At the time, Americana was bringing in the fourth-highest sales per square foot monthly of any shopping center in the country, averaging $1,100, almost triple the figure of a typical enclosed mall.
Sanders said that 2019 figures, the most recent available before the pandemic, average about twice that.
Castagna was born Sept. 19, 1928, the only child of Ferdinand Castagna and the former Henrietta Vogliazzo, Italian immigrants from the country’s Piedmont region, according to Sanders. Castagna was raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The family moved to Long Island in 1949. He later graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Pennsylvania Military Academy, now Widener University.
After graduation, he joined Gerace & Castagna, which was cofounded in 1922 by Ferdinand Castagna as a masonry contracting company and grew into a general contractor by the time his son began working there. Around 1955, the company bought land in Manhasset that would become Americana Manhasset. In 1956, Frank Castagna married Rita Ronzoni, whose father had founded the Ronzoni Macaroni Co.
The Castagna business was renamed Castagna & Son in 1965.
Frank Castagna was also involved in public works projects in the region, including NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza, North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, the new Bellevue Hospital, the Nassau Coliseum and Stony Brook University Hospital, according to Sanders. In 1980, the company developed what would become the Wheatley Plaza outdoor mall in Greenvale, also on Northern Boulevard, about 5 miles east of Americana Manhasset.
The company, which over the years has done residential development, office buildings and other projects across the Island and beyond, is now headed by Castagna’s daughter, Catherine Castagna, of Southport, Connecticut, who in 2019 became president — the third generation to run the company.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Castagna is survived by son Fred Castagna of Great Neck, four grandsons and two step-granddaughters. His other son, Paul Castagna, preceded him in death.
Memorial services, which were private, were Thursday and Friday.