Hidden History

Gold Coast Goodbye

As the opulent Gatsby-era homes of Long Island slowly make way for modern developments, a devoted community tries to save one of the most magnificent mansions of all.

Gold Coast Goodbye

“Inisfada” means “Long Island” in Gaelic. But the thirty-three-acre estate and Tudor Elizabethan revival mansion of that name is about as far removed from the Long Island of strip malls and LIE traffic as possible. Nestled in a back corner of North Hills in Nassau County, Inisfada’s grandeur recalls Gatsby-style parties held by debutantes and ambassadors. Once the fourth-largest mansion in America, Inisfada is more reminiscent of a Long Island of the distant past; of the grand houses that dotted the island’s North Shore in the 1920s, leading to its moniker, “the Gold Coast.” Over the last 90-odd years, many of these mansions fell off the map, either crumbling into disrepair or sold and knocked down to make way for more modern homes. Just two years ago, Lands End, the actual mansion that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was torn down to make room for multi-million-dollar homes.

One of the largest of these historic Gold Coast mansions, Inisfada was built between 1916 and 1920 by Nicholas Brady, the well-known philanthropist, businessman and son of Anthony Brady—a Con Edison co-founder—as a tenth anniversary present for his wife, Genevieve. The Bradys used the mansion as a summer home, and after his death from rheumatoid arthritis in 1930, his widow bestowed the building to the New York Province of the Society of Jesuits, who have utilized it as the St. Ignatius retreat house since 1963. But now the Jesuit group, hampered by the rising costs of maintaining such a large mansion, has shuttered the doors of the St. Ignatius retreat for good and are in the process of selling Inisfada. Starting today, August 1, the mansion has a new owner, although his or her identity, along with their intentions for Inisfada, remains unknown.

The swimming pool at Inisfada lies dormant.
The swimming pool at Inisfada lies dormant.

On June 2, the long circular driveway and lawn in front of Inisfada was packed with cars, almost as if a large get-together from the mansion’s heyday came back for one last ball. But this was a solemn goodbye gathering, not a party. It was St. Ignatius’s final sermon, and hundreds of worshippers, volunteers and neighbors who had come to care deeply about the retreat home over the years came out for a final hour of prayer. The main chapel on the first floor was overflowing with worshippers, many of whom had to seek a secondary service in the solarium next door.

“How many people grew in the love of God as the result of the many missions preached out of Inisfada?” asked Father William Walsh in his final homily at the mass held inside the solarium. “For the last fifty years, how many lives of others were enriched by their encounters here?”

Today, the Inisfada property looks quite different than it did during that early summer celebration. A “No Trespassing” sign on the front lawn warns would-be visitors and a security guard stands watch outside the property. The mansion has been completely emptied, according to Deacon Tom Everard of St. Ignatius. When questioned about photos of construction materials recently spotted outside the mansion that were posted online by a local activist, the deacon replied angrily, “It’s none of their business.”

The official word from Father Vincent Cooke, the assistant for strategic planning for the New York Jesuits, is that the owners signed a contract for $37.5 million with a foreign investor from Hong Kong. The identity of the investor is still unknown because of contractual anonymity. Intermingled with the voices raised in a chorus of “Hallelujahs” at the final mass were whisperings of concern that the foreign investor has a bulldozer poised and ready. One woman who had volunteered with the Jesuits for many years said she and other volunteers believe that, without a doubt, Inisfada will surely be torn down. She would not give her name for fear of angering others in the Jesuit community.

“We have no confirmation on the home being torn down. You never know what they’re going to do,” said Father Cooke, of the new owners. “As soon as we close, they will take over. Obviously I would prefer the house to remain as it is.”

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Inisfada is notable for more than its colossal size. The eighty-seven-room mansion is also deeply rooted in Catholic history. A major donor to the Catholic Church, Nicholas Brady was named a papal duke by the Vatican. According to Father Damian Halligan, the head priest at Inisfada and a researcher of St. Ignatius history, the Bradys could not have any children, so they often invited their nieces and nephews over to play on what was once a sprawling 122 acres. The house itself retains a playful, youthful atmosphere. Stone carvings on the outside of the home depict scenes from fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs” and “Mother Hubbard.”

A bedroom at St. Ignatius Retreat House, also known as Inisfada.
A bedroom at St. Ignatius Retreat House, also known as Inisfada.

After Inisfada was converted into a retreat house, it became well known for hosting the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who eventually became Pope Pius XII, and the first Pope to visit America. Each year, hundreds of people came to Inisfada, said Lou Paolillo, an active member of the Jesuit community here, during a tour of the grounds. The facility has hosted confirmation retreats for pre-teens, retreats for the elderly and ailing, and other trips meant as quiet vacations away from the workaday hustle, complete with meditation sessions and sermons.

The mansion itself, with its impressive façade and spacious grounds, is rather humble on the inside. The main chapel is the primary feature of the first floor—a long, narrow church with floor-to-ceiling windows and pews where patrons would kneel in prayer every Sunday. Behind the balcony of the chapel is a dark passageway leading to a steep stone staircase that spirals up to a secret roof entrance. The second and third floors are relatively modest, with similarly long hallways that branch off into small guestrooms.

One of the most beloved aspects of Inisfada is the St. Genevieve chapel located on the second floor. It was built in Europe in the early twentieth century and brought over piece by piece. Decorated with panels of stained glass and elaborate woodcarvings depicting the Stations of the Cross, the tiny room exudes an aura of quiet peacefulness. Even if the mansion is lost, the chapel however, will not be. Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, is taking Genevieve Chapel and placing it on their Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.

The private chapel at Inisfada is home to stunning stained glass windows.
The private chapel at Inisfada is home to stunning stained glass windows.

Walking around the grounds, Paolillo explained that retreat guests would take solace strolling the labyrinthine Zen garden in the back of Inisfada. The tiny wooden open-air teahouse, which was a common addition to large homes in the early twentieth century, now serves as a private sanctuary for prayer.

Paolillo is part of an activist group trying to create another option, and, in their minds, save Inisfada from a fate of demolition. The group is led by Dr. Robert Aquino, a longtime St. Ignatius volunteer who was CEO of Parkway Hospital in Queens until he was arrested last year and spent four months in jail for bribery. Aquino says that becoming more involved with the Jesuits saved him, and put him back on the right path. Paolillo and Aquino partnered with Dr. Robert Evans, CEO of the Community Wellness Centers of America, an organization that creates health and medical centers in underserved communities. They want to continue the tradition of spiritual rehabilitation at Inisfada by buying the mansion and turning it into a center of healing. A crucial aspect of their proposed deal is that they would promise to leave the house intact.

“Why would we want to lose this gem on Long Island? Why would New York want to lose it? You have a foreign developer wanting to come in and tear it down, and you have another party wanting people to come in and heal,” said Paolillo, as he walked past the intricate stone carvings on the eaves of the home. He pointed up at the Big Bad Wolf. “The irony of this story is this foreign developer wants to come in and huff and puff and blow the house down just like the wolf. We hope the story will end up the same way as the Three Little Pigs did.”

Dr. Evans said his group was willing to match, or even top, the offer made by the foreign investor. But he claimed that the owners never showed much interest in their offer, and that the deal between the Jesuits and the foreign investor was done very quickly and secretively.

A schematic of the private chapel walls at Inisfada.
A schematic of the private chapel walls at Inisfada.

“They weren’t transparent with the fact that they were selling the property,” said Dr. Evans. “I think business-wise, they plan to move it quickly before everyone is alerted. The community has to fight for itself now.”

Father Halligan claims that Dr. Evans and the Wellness Community never came up with a solid offer, and their interest came about only after the contract was already signed between the Chinese developer and the Jesuits. Asserting that while he personally loves Inisfada, the reality is someone had to buy the property, and demolition is not off the table.

While the deal seems finalized, the fight against demolishing Inisfada is still ongoing. And now there are two factions of supporters trying to save the home. Chuck Idol, CEO of Long Island Builders, has started a petition on Change.org to landmark the property. Over 400 people have signed, including representatives from the nearby Oheka Castle, another Gold Coast mansion. Idol has snapped photos of the construction equipment and private property signs at the house, posting them on his website, Inisfada.org. He has written letters to town officials and even appealed to the Pope by tweeting @Pontifex in an attempt to get his attention.

Idol’s ambitious campaign stems from a personal bone to pick with the New York Jesuits. When his sister, Regina Jabbour, died of cancer, he memorialized her by buying a stone marker on Inisfada’s property. Now, Idol says, he cannot get anywhere near the property, and his requests to remove the memorial go unanswered. He estimates there must be 500 more of these memorial markers on the property.

“The Jesuits in my opinion have not provided the general public with some form of transparency. They’ve abandoned us,” said Idol. “These are stones that represent the deceased. It would be an act of kindness to give them back.”

In the final days before St. Ignatius closed, community members frequently went to the compound and demanded to know why the Jesuits weren’t doing more to protect the historic home. One woman was close to tears as she explained she had attended St. Ignatius retreats for years, and couldn’t stand the thought that this “place of healing and spirituality” might be turned into a bunch of condos.

Movers pack up the furniture in the main chapel at Inisfada.
Movers pack up the furniture in the main chapel at Inisfada.

However, according to Don Alberto, a representative from the Buildings Department in North Hills, it would not be possible for the owners to build condominium apartments on the property, because the land is zoned for R3 residential, meaning it can only be used for single-family dwellings at 20,000 square feet, or a builder’s half-acre—not condominiums. The land could more likely be turned into several large, multi-million dollar homes, similar to the spot where Land’s End, the Gatsby mansion, once stood.

Idol claims that the North Hills Building Department did not issue a construction permit to St. Ignatius before they started clearing out the mansion. Alberto responded by simply stating that, “The Village is not aware of any activity being conducted at this property which requires permits from the Village.” The representatives of the Jesuit community who spoke earlier could not be reached for comment regarding Idol’s petition or the building permits.

According to the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, there is little chance of the building being saved through Idol’s effort to landmark it, as North Hills does not have a local landmarks ordinance.

“If the new developers choose to demolish the building, they have a right to do that,” said Mayor Marvin Nattis of North Hills. “I can’t control the Great Gatsby era for a few people who think it should be preserved. It’s only a few people interested in making the noise here.”

The story of the evil developer coming in to tear down the precious historical gem while the community valiantly fights to save the day makes for a stirring story, but the Jesuit group maintains the truth about Inisfada is much more complicated. For them, selling Inisfada came down to budget concerns. George Malhame, a member of the board of St. Ignatius, explained the decision was the culmination of a long struggle to keep their heads above water. In the 1970s, Inisfada’s owners sold off more than eighty acres of land to a developer, who created two estate developments next door to St. Ignatius, which helped abate the estate’s financial worries, but was not enough to keep the retreat home open forever. They have also slowly auctioned off most of the mansion’s contents over the past few years.

The private chapel has served as a sacred space at St. Ignatius Retreat House.
The private chapel has served as a sacred space at St. Ignatius Retreat House.

It costs $80,000 just to heat the mansion each winter, said Malhame. This year, the boiler had to be replaced and the roof had to be fixed—projects that would have cost over $1 million each. Furthermore, the sea of grey-haired heads bent in prayer at the final sermon was a reminder that St. Ignatius has had trouble reaching out to young people, making it harder to remain relevant. So the Jesuits decided to preserve only one of their three retreat houses in the tri-state area—Loyola Retreat House in New Jersey—while closing St. Ignatius and the Manresa Retreat House in Staten Island.

But Idol claims more could have been done, pointing to mansions like Oheka Castle that host weddings and other large events to generate revenue, which Inisfada has never done.

Malhame stood at the front door before the final sermon, assuring guests that the spirit of St. Ignatius will live on as a mobile ministry based in Westbury, a village in the town of North Hempstead. Instead of people having to find this isolated home in the middle of Long Island, he said, the ministry would come to them.

A peaceful garden statue awaits the news of Inisfada's fate.
A peaceful garden statue awaits the news of Inisfada’s fate.

“We can’t stay with a foot in the past, we have to go forward,” said Malhame. “We did the best we could under difficult circumstances. It’s easy to criticize and complain but did anyone do anything about it? Most of the people who complained didn’t donate their money or effort to the retreat house. People keep looking at the home, the physical aspect of St. Ignatius, but it’s what went on inside the building that will be remembered forever.”

Father Halligan invited descendants of the Brady family to the final sermon. He said they were in awe of the magnificent structure, and wanted some mementos to keep and remember St. Ignatius by, but did not mention the prospect of demolition.

The spiritual community will soon know the developers’ identity and plans. But even though the physical fate of Inisfada is unknown, the Jesuit leaders insist they themselves simply must move on.

“Retreat houses are closing all over the place,” said Father Halligan. “People just aren’t going to them anymore. Everyone keeps forgetting that. Who do they think is going to fix up this place? Our country can hardly keep its own museums. This is a relic. I’m almost eighty, and the other priest here is eighty. It’s a different world today than the Bradys knew.”