We have lost an enormously important part – both in symbol and in fact – of Long Island history. The enormous Tudor castle known as Inisfada, which sat on about thirty acres of scarce Nassau County open space in North Hills, is almost gone. The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, had been entrusted with its perpetual care since 1937; earlier this year they sold the estate to developers – who this week began razing the wonderful home. Without the protections afforded other significant landmarks, the land this treasure once occupied will now become just another cookie-cutter housing development, like the myriad homes that ring the property – the result of an earlier sell-off of most of the original estate.
What has been lost far exceeds the sum total of art, architecture, decoration and craftsmanship that had defined the splendid home – the seventh-largest ever built in the United States – since it was constructed at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. None of the other grand houses on the Gold Coast, including those already gone, exemplified the spirit of the age, the meaning of the phrase, better than Inisfada – which is Gaelic for “Long Island.”
Moreover, the transformation of Inisfada into a center of spirituality – St. Ignatius Retreat House – did more than simply extend the usefulness of what was once an elegant estate. Over the years the community of people brought together from around the world who lived and worked there, went on retreat, celebrated Mass, simply strolled the hallways and grounds, or participated in the varied and compelling programs – some of which were ecumenical in character – came to love Inisfada deeply. For more than the magnificence of its design. More than its welcoming peacefulness. More than its inspiring beauty. The worldwide community of Inisfada made it unique – a treasure of wealth untold.
The benefactors who built and later donated the estate to the Church hoped that what had been their summer home would become more than simply another building for a charitable organization. In donating their home, the patrons were bringing together their cherished home and a beloved organization to create a most special place. They would have been as heartbroken as are the thousands of people across the country and around the world to learn of the demolition of Inisfada.
The eighty-seven room, almost ninety-thousand square-foot mansion had thirty-seven chimneys, dozens of slate roof angles, and hidden staircases, medieval crenulations, and fairy tales to adorn the facade (from where we get the term “stories”). The world’s finest artisans and crafts people were hired to create intricate, hand-carved plaster walls and ceilings, marble floors, stone columns, wood paneling, and glass chandeliers.
When the Jesuits took possession, in the midst of the Great Depression, they sold much of the art and furniture of the house at auction (which raised, in today’s dollars, $7.3 million) and the intricate and intricately-decorated master suite was sacrificed to create several small, modest bedrooms. Other than that, the home was primarily as it was when the Bradys lived and entertained guests there. The grand staircase(s). The 163-foot main hallway. The carved oak. The high ceilings. The solarium, billiard room, library, breakfast room, and every other amazing wonderful inspiring beautiful part of this home.
Of the ten largest private homes in the United States still standing, Inisfada was one of only two that are not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of only three that had not been designated as Historic Landmarks.
This kind of protection alone, however, likely would not have been sufficient to save the home from the wrecking ball. Most observers understand that upkeep and maintenance costs had become too great for the Jesuits to sustain, and that a sale was unavoidable. What most see as incredulous is how – especially in light of at least one legitimate competing bid for preservation – the Society could agree to a purchase of what was left of the estate without conserving the home itself.
In Part II: a look at the benefactors who created and donated Inisfada.
Anthony Clark is a writer who spent several years in the 1980s working at Inisfada, or St. Ignatius Retreat House.