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The Calm Before Conservation … Or The Storm?

Building’s fate unknown

Inisfada’s fate is seemingly in the hands of the Manhasset Bay Group, Inc., and the shroud of secrecy surrounding the five-month-old corporation’s intentions is leaving many activists to fear the worst: demolition of the Gold Coast mansion resting on the 33 acres that the New York Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) sold for $36.5 million.

Richard Bentley, president of the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations, Inc., said the Jesuits absolved themselves of “moral and ethical obligations” to ensure preservation of the 87-room relic that Genevieve Brady donated to them in 1937.

Bentley is now focused on supporting SynergyFirst Realty International LLC, a holding company of the science-based Synergy First International Inc. that, according to CEO Eli Weinstein, initially offered the Jesuits $36 million. However, shortly after submitting that amount in writing, Weinstein said the Jesuits agreed to sell Inisfada to the Manhasset Bay Group, Inc.

Weinstein said he is perplexed by the Manhasset Bay Group, Inc.’s interest in Inisfada and wishes to obtain the 33 acres, restore the mansion to its original form and return it to the Jesuits. Then, he would build a family oriented religious resort on the remaining grounds.

SynergyFirst attempted to prevent the transfer of Inisfada’s deed by filing a temporary restraining order against the Jesuits on August 1, but Weinstein said Judge Randy Sue Marber denied this request because it did not contain the name Manhasset Bay Group, Inc.

Weinstein maintains the name was not public knowledge at the time, and said he is “positive” that the court will grant the temporary restraining order upon its second submission.

In fact, he believes that this will be the beginning of the end for Manhasset Bay Group, Inc.’s presence at Inisfada.

“I feel relatively sure that a lot of things that took place here should not have taken place,” Weinstein said, citing a lack of approval from New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for the sale of the not-for-profit’s property.

Weinstein said that whenever the court revokes the restraining order he hopes to obtain, he would appeal any decision not in his favor. “The buyer would [then] be sitting with his money stuck for a very long time,” he said, predicting that the Manhasset Bay Group, Inc. would walk away to avoid this hindrance.

Staten Island residents recently celebrated attainment of a similar temporary restraining order, which halted the sale of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus’ Mount Manresa property to the Savo Brothers development company. It also prevented the demolition of the former retreat house situated on those 15.4 acres.

Many Long Islanders, however, believe the odds for St. Ignatius’ demolition are strong, considering the Village of North Hills’ declaration that it will not stand in the way of any requested demolition permits.

Mayor Marvin Natiss is currently declining to speak with members of the press, and instead directing them to information published on the village’s website, a portion of which reads, “The Village does not have the right to deny a demolition permit which conforms to legal requirements.”

The Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities’ Alexandra Parsons Wolfe secured Inisfada’s eligibility for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places last year, and although eligibility affords the same protections as inclusion, they are limited. We recognize that even being placed on the State and/or National Registry of Historic Places does not guarantee a landmark is not demolished. However, formal landmark status significantly increases the pressure on a municipality to undertake every possible effort to save a historic structure, rather than permitting its demolition. The last 2 sentences are lifted directly form the Manhasset Civic Assn web page The website for the council of Manhasset Civic Assns says the Brady mansion is on the National Registry.

Daniel McEneny, of New York State’s National Register Unit, said the State Historic Preservation Office only intervenes if state or federal money, or permitting, is involved in the owner’s desired changes to a property.

Even then, he said state officials could only discuss alternatives and perks – such as a 20 percent historic preservation federal tax credit for reusing a designated building—prior to a scheduled demolition date.

The Village of North Hills also used its website to explain that it “has not adopted landmark laws for any property in the village, and does not intend to  consider enacting such laws without a request from the owner of the property proposed to be landmarked.”

The Village also stated that re-development of the property would require site approvals – which require public hearings and environmental reviews – as well as building permits.

While Bentley and other locals maintain that the Jesuits ignored opportunities to preserve the mansion, most recently used as the St. Ignatius Retreat House, the priests and brothers are keeping quiet.

Rev. Vincent M. Cooke led the sale of Inisfada, but said his attorney advised him to decline media requests for information until all related litigation is complete. “I would love to get our whole story out there, but as you can see my hands are tied,” he related in an e-mail.

In the meantime, portions of Inisfada’s St. Genevieve Chapel will be preserved and relocated within the grounds of Fordham University, whose officials are “studying various options” for their uses, according to the school’s Senior Director of Communications Bob Howe.

Renee Owens, director of the Loyola House of Retreats, maintains that the Jesuits did not lose sentimentality for their home of 76 years (donated to the Jesuits in 1937, but not converted into a retreat house until 1963 which was 50 years ago!) Rather, they were eager to donate much of its interior to her Morristown, N.J. retreat house that is welcoming the staff, retreatants and worshippers from Manhasset.

In fact, Owens received “probably four truckloads of items” from the St. Ignatius Retreat House, including its dining room set, king and queen sized beds, cabinets, statues and paintings. One item, a painting of Jesus Christ, came with a personal note from a Jesuit explaining its significance. An elderly man named Owen Clark donated that 19th century work of art, which “was in his family since before he can remember.”

“We’re partners in this ministry. We want to continue to be partners,” Owens said, of her reason for welcoming the artifacts and people from Inisfada.

Owens recently staffed retreats with several sisters from St. Ignatius, but these sisters are also working to build a ministry out of the St. Peter of Alcantara parish in Port Washington.

Sister Eileen Schulenberg worked at Inisfada for 10 years before embarking on this new journey, as part of a 25-person group comprised of former St. Ignatius associate staff members. While St. Ignatius was “a place of great spirit,” she believes it would be financially and emotionally draining to return.

“It’s a huge place to finance. The bills are tremendous – it’s an old, old building,” she said, citing the Jesuits’ struggle to finance its heating, air conditioning and repairs. “The place is stripped now. Everything is gone. It’s just a vacant building … we’re already moving on, and there’s no way.”

Schulenberg said her group is currently running programs at St. Peter’s and are seeking other locations for retreats.

Inisfada’s former retreatants, worshippers and visitors must settle for these alternative options in the immediate wake of Inisfada’s sale, but while many are biding time with updates on Synergy First’s efforts in court, others are concocting new ideas to prevent overall defeat.

Farrel Fritz, P.C. partner John P. McEntee, who represents the Manhasset Bay Group, Inc., declined to comment on his client’s plans for the property, leaving some to think that there is still time to negotiate with the individuals in charge.

Wolfe suggested that a consortium of activists merge powers to present options to the Manhasset Bay Group, Inc., involving ideas to both preserve original structures and create new developments.

In the meantime, the Village of North Hills stated that the property is zoned R-3 and therefore permitted to contain a retreat house or other religious operations, a non-commercial membership club, a group of single family detached homes on lots of at least 20,000 square feet each or be used for other governmental operations.

While Bentley is on board with Weinstein’s notion of a religious resort on the Inisfada grounds, he is also not opposed to other measures that would ensure its perpetuation. “I don’t have one specific dream plan,” he said, citing alternative uses of Manhasset’s Christ Church and Huntington’s Oheka Castle as starkly different—but  acceptable—examples to follow.  Christ Church will soon share its space with for-profit entities; Oheka, another Gold Coast mansion, now functions as a catering hall and hotel.

“I’m not going to discourage Synergy First in their efforts, because if they’re successful and they’re willing to save the mansion for an alternative use, we’re likely going to be at that table with them developing that use. If it turns out that we can get the Manhasset Bay Group to the table to discuss an alternative use to save the facility, we’re going to do that. We don’t want to limit ourselves…”

These options are not ideal for Manhasset native Chuck Idol, whose mother-in-law and sister-in-law’s memorial bricks rest on the Inisfada property, but at this point, he merely hopes that the mansion remains standing for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible. But it’s certainly a heck of a long shot at this point to do anything. It’s in the control of the purchasing party,” he said. “It’s the purchasing party’s responsibility, in my opinion, to be transparent to the community and tell us what they want to do.”