Thursday, July 25, 2013


While we may not be in a real estate boom like the early 2000’s, the market has picked up, and there is no shortage of endangered historic properties—currently the most significant in both scale and impact to the surrounding community is Inisfada, the former St. Ignatius Retreat House. This is one of the largest and most intact homes to be lost in both Long Island, and the United States, in the last 40 years.

Inisfada © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

Inisfada, which is the Gaelic word for “Long Island”, was built between 1916-1920 by Philadelphia-based architect John Torrey Windrim for Nicolas and Genevieve Brady. At the time of its construction, the Tudor Revival-style home was considered the 4th largest private house in the United States, and it remains the only example of Windrim’s work in New York. In 1937, the then-widowed Mrs. Brady donated the North Hills estate to the Jesuit order, where it has served as a retreat house for the past 75 years. The site retains 33 out of the original 122 acres, and a number of its original finishes, although Mrs. Brady auctioned off the majority of its contents in 1937 for the benefit of the Jesuits. Though it is eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house has not been landmarked. 

Inisfada © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

In the autumn of 2012, Inisfada was listed on the market for $49 million, and on June 2nd, 2013, it ceased its activities as a retreat house. The Village of North Hills zoning designates the property as single family half-acre residential lots, which would render the approximately 70,000 square foot house a liability to most developers as its immense size takes up approximately 3 potential half-acre lots. Adaptive reuse of the building, such as condos, a corporate headquarters, or a historic luxury hotel, appears to be the best option for preserving the building. This type of development would most likely require a variance from the Village, which can be a difficult and lengthy process for investors to obtain. Nonetheless, this option should be explored as this approach would enable an investor to make a similar profit and preserve the landscape of a community that is quickly becoming a swath of tract housing. Investors traditionally take the path of least resistance, since it most often offers the best return in the least amount of time. This is why it is important that the public express to the Village of North Hills their interest in the future of Inisfada now so that all options (especially adaptive reuse) can be explored before development of the land begins. 

Inisfada © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

Examples successful adaptive reuse of estates similar to Inisfada abound throughout Long Island, the Northeast, and farther afield. Breaking up private estates into smaller apartments has proved to be fruitful in Europe for generations, and there are several examples of this in Inisfada’s own backyard:
• The Summit at High Point, Roslyn Heights – Ryan estate (across the street from Inisfada)
Condominiums in the main house surround by newly constructed condo/townhomes.
• Lattingtown Ponds, Glen Cove - Clifford Brokaw estate
This features cluster zoning (meaning density is specified for development overall, which can contain high-density apartments as well as low-density estate lots) in an attractive form that preserves the vistas of the original estate.
• Long Meadow, Glen Cove – Francis Lymon Hine estate
Originally designed by Walker & Gillette, the architects of Coe Hall (Planting Fields), the main house has been converted to condos, with cluster zoned houses surrounding it.
• Bulova Watchcase, Sag Harbor
Originally a factory, another interesting example of transforming a historic space into luxury condos, currently under construction.

Other affluent communities that have prospered through condo conversions include the Hamptons, the Berkshires, Newport RI, and Palm Beach, where converted large estates exist in harmony with high-end residential communities.

© Thoresen & Linard
Whitefield, Southhampton – James L. Breese estate
Winner of a New York State Historic Preservation award in 1986, the main house was converted into residences, with its public rooms restored for use by all residents, and 24 surrounding townhomes.
• The Waves, Newport RI – John Russell Pope estate
• Seafair or Terre Mare, Newport RI – James Mackenzie estate
• Bienestar, Palm Beach FL – Frederick Wheeler estate
Originally designed by Marion Sims Wyeth and later converted into 6 condos by Robert Eigelberger, which received much acclaim, including the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation’s Ballinger Award for sensitive historical renovation.

On a similar size and scale as Inisfada is Oheka, the former Otto Kahn estate. At one time thought by many to be a white elephant, Oheka has become one of the most successful examples of adaptive reuse on Long Island as a historic luxury hotel and special events venue. 

© Oheka

Originally homes like Inisfada and Oheka were designed to host large parties of guests, their conversion into historic hotels and special venues seems fitting:
• The Chanler at Cliff Walk, Newport RI – former Chanler and Astor estate
• Blantyre, Lenox MA – former Robert Paterson estate
• Wheatleigh, Lenox MA – former Henry H. Cook estate

Yet another successful example of adaptive reuse on Long Island is:
Rynwood © Long Island's Gold Coast
Rynwood, Old Brookville – Sir Samuel A. Salvage
Now the world headquarters of Banfi Vintners, this 60-room mansion was painstakingly restored by Banfi in 1979 in the manner “of a magnificent home, not a crassly commercial office,” according to the interior designer of the project, Mark Hampton. 

Inisfada © Long Island's Gold Coast

Although it may be too late, one idea for a similarly sensitive conversion for Inisfada comes from a Queens-based health-care company, Community Wellness Centers of America LLC, which is interested in purchasing the property and continuing its use as a retreat house. This plan has the support of local residents and organizations, including the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations, who are attempting to apply for landmark designation for the building. At the closing mass, there were 500 cars parked outside of Inisfada, and one can assume that there were nearly twice as many people inside. That stands as a strong testament to the significance of this building’s role in the community. If you are concerned about the future of Inisfada, we encourage you to seek out more information from groups like the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations and others who are working to spread the word about its tenuous circumstances through petitions (visit to sign these!), the media and other outlets. And please voice your opinion to your local officials—if the local government and potential developers do not know that their constituents care, they will be much less likely to take action towards preserving this historic complex.

Check back for updates as we continue to follow the developments in the sale of Inisfada.