Good Morning
Good Morning

Editorial: A creative way to save Long Island history

The uncertainty about Inisfada, which means "long island"

The uncertainty about Inisfada, which means "long island" in Gaelic, has rattled preservationists and alarmed thousands who have fond memories of it. Credit: Handout

The latest historic local estate in the crosshairs of developers is Inisfada, the magnificent Tudor Revival mansion in Manhasset. To lose this architectural masterpiece would further diminish Long Island's Gold Coast history and reinforce the perception that our landscape is little more than suburban subdivisions.

The 87-room mansion, completed in 1919 by Nicholas Brady, then the director of the New York Edison Co., once was one of the largest private homes in the nation. In 1937 the estate on 330 lushly landscaped acres was donated by Brady's widow to the Society of Jesus for use as a seminary. Over time, the Roman Catholic order, better known as the Jesuits, sold off all but 33 acres and operated the St. Ignatius Retreat House there. When operating costs could no longer be met, the order sold the property for $36.5 million to the mysterious Manhasset Bay Group, whose investors are unknown and which has not divulged its plans. The property is zoned for two single-family homes per acre. The sale closed in late July

The uncertainty about Inisfada, which means "long island" in Gaelic, has rattled preservationists and alarmed thousands who have fond memories of it. The new owners, reportedly based in Hong Kong and the Village of North Hills, must think creatively, with an eye toward history.

They could start by taking a look at how Glen Cove innovated to try to save the John and Ruth Pratt mansion on Dosoris Lane.

The city, which hadn't updated its zoning code for five decades, imposed a moratorium on rezoning in 2006 so it could develop a new flexible master plan to allow for "floating density."

Mayor Ralph Suozzi, who initiated the new code, said he was motivated by the shameful 1980 demolition of one of the most highly regarded properties on the Gold Coast, the J.P. Morgan estate on East Island. All that's left are parts of the Morgan Bridge that led to it, and its guard station. Three decades earlier, Glen Cove lost one of its most famous historic venues, Pembroke, once owned by the founder of MGM Studios and visited by the stars of the time.

As a result of Mayor Suozzi's determination to preserve as much of the Pratt property as possible, he used the city's new zoning this summer to negotiate a plan allowing 22.7 acres of the 54.5-acre parcel to be subdivided for 40 single-family homes. While the Glen Cove zoning doesn't guarantee that any historic site will be preserved, it enables it. The new master plan created a "soft landing" for developers by eliminating the previous all-or-nothing approach that meant destruction of the mansion and vista to accommodate 40 single-family homes. The Chicago developers, along with the Los Angeles investors backing them, didn't agree to 40 homes because of sentimentality, civic duty or local political pressure. It was smart business.

Now the centerpiece Pratt house and its great lawn have a chance to continue to be used as a hotel and conference center. Unfortunately, Inisfada won't benefit from having smarter zoning in place and, so far, prayer hasn't helped much, either. It will be up to preservationists, civic groups and village officials to try to broker a plan that will convince the new owners that their land has more value if Inisfada is preserved.

There is still time, however, for other municipalities to think ahead about what safeguards are in place for their landmarks. Long Island's history doesn't always have to be defined by what it has lost.