Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Big Old Houses: The Irish Channel

Big Old Houses: The Irish Channel
by John Foreman

While not exactly an insult, the "Irish Channel" wasn't precisely a compliment either. During the politically incorrect 1920s, it was a smug WASP joke referring to an imprecisely bounded section of Long Island's North Shore favored by rich Irishmen. Most Americans today have forgot that back in 1960 the election of Irish-Catholic John Kennedy occasioned no less national amazement than the recent election of African-American Barack Obama.

The Irish business barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to fall into three groups vis a vis Catholicism and American "society." According to the old saw, heaven was a palace with many doors, but a gentleman used the one marked "Episcopalian." Ergo, the first group either abandoned Catholicism altogether and/or raised their children in whatever fashionable Protestant church was handiest. The second group may or may not have been good Catholics, but didn't care about society so it didn't matter what they did. The third group embraced Catholicism with a special intensity, sometimes showering Catholic charities with sufficient millions to attract the attention of the pope himself. Utilities and tobacco mogul Nicholas F. Brady (1878-1930), builder of the Tudor Revival palace in the vintage aerial below, falls into category three. He called his Manhasset estate Inisfada (pronounced in-ish-FAH-dah), which means Long Island in Gaelic.
Brady's widow gave Inisfada to the Jesuits in 1937, and it survives today — albeit not for much longer — as a retreat house. The original estate covered 300-or-so acres on Searingtown Road between Northern Blvd and the Long Island Espressway. The aerial view above, taken some time in the 1920s, looks south over rural Manhasset. Searingtown Road runs diagonally from mid-left to upper right. Inisfada's main drive is the tree lined allee that starts at Searingtown on the left and disappears out of sight on the right. The drive, which originally afforded fine views of the house, is now buried within a condo complex called Estates I. The entrance to today's St. Ignatious Retreat House, as the Inisfada mansion is called, has been moved slightly north on Searingtown Road and is marked by the relocated stone standards that flank my sister's car (lead image). The original 300-acre estate is now reduced to a 33-acre island surrounded by a sea of condos, superhighways and subdivision houses.
In 1916 when the Bradys started buying land in fashionable Manhasset, they were in their 30s, married ten years, childless but presumably hoping. Their architect was a man I've never heard of, John T. Windrim (1866-1934) of Philadelphia, PA. Windrim's practice focused on banks, office buildings, telephone exchanges, police stations, hospitals, and the like. He was the designer of the famous Franklin Institute on Logan Square in Philadelphia. Of course, Inisfada is the size of many a not-so-small institutional building — its in-house telephone system had 89 extensions — so maybe the architect was less of an odd choice than one might think.
Inisfada is gorgeously detailed with stone and wood carving, and was pervasively religious even before the Jesuits arrived. The medallion above the porte cochere, for instance, depicts Mrs. Brady's namesake, St. Genevieve. For those who may have forgot, she is the patron saint of Paris, credited with saving that city from the depredations of Atilla the Hun, purely through the power of prayer.
Here's Nicholas Brady in a photo taken, judging from his collar, around the time Inisfada was either under construction or recently finished. Brady's father, Anthony, was a classic American success story — a penniless Irish immigrant who rose to economic prominence by his own smarts.

Nicholas Brady.
Brady's widow, Genevieve, receiving a honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Georgetown University.
Francis Garvan.
The elder Brady was, among many other things, president of the New York Edison Company. He was also one of those Irishmen who cast aside Catholicism and raised his children in the Anglo-Saxon faith of Ireland's historic oppressors. His eldest son Nicholas, interestingly, converted to Catholicism in 1905, the year before his marriage to another child of the Catholic elite, the devout Genevieve Garvan.

It's tempting suspect a man with so much privilege — and such a big house! — as being irredeemably self-satisfied. However, this same man once said, "What are rich people but the trustees of God for the deserving poor and honest labor .... The working man's right and dignity should come before high dividends." I hope he meant it.

Brady died unexpectedly in New York in March of 1930 at the age of 52. Of the financial empire over which he and his brother, James Cox Brady, presided, the press observed, "A New Yorker cannot light his gas or turn on his electric bulb without adding to their riches."

Those riches were augmented by major holdings in mining, banking, fuel, iron, sugar and rubber. Plus which, according to the press of the day, you could, "hardly puff a cigarette or enjoy your favorite pipe without paying tribute to the Bradys." More about that in a moment.

In 1926, in the wake of a million dollar gift to the Vatican, Pope Pius XI made Brady and his wife a papal duke and duchess.

After his death, Brady's widow (right), seen receiving a honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Georgetown University, continued their Catholic philanthropies with, if possible, even more of an open hand.

This man is Francis Garvan, Nicholas Brady's college roommate and Genevieve Brady's brother. Garvan was another Catholic swell from the Irish Channel who happened to be married to Brady's sister, Mabel.

In late 1923 he represented his wife and another Brady sister in a nasty lawsuit alleging that Nicholas and James Brady had misappropriated funds — specifically relating to tobacco stock — from a Brady family trust.

The Brady boys had, in truth, been using the trust as a sort of personal private bank. The case made juicy headlines in late 1923 and early 1924. A lead in the Times on January 10, 1924, reads, "Witness and Lawyer Appeal to Court to Stop Each from Insulting the Other."

The case, settled out of court, once again leaves unresolved the age old question of how much money is enough.

To circumnavigate Inisfada on foot is to realize how immense it is. Oheka, the late Otto Kahn's estate in Cold Spring is generally held to be the largest house on Long Island, but I don't see how it could really be bigger than this. Inisfada's porte cochere is obscured by the big tree.
The terrace adjoins an enormous solarium located at the western end of the house. An elaborate master bedroom suite on the 2nd floor was one of the very few parts of Inisfada's remarkably preserved interior to be destroyed during conversion to institutional use.
The view from the terrace originally looked down an axis of formal gardens, now mostly lawn. The vintage view in the second image below looks the other direction towards the house. The formal pool with its lovely statue was apparently a later addition.
My guide, St. Ignatius Administrator Tom Evrard, is standing in front of the south facade. There were originally sweeping views from here down to the drive, and beyond that to distant open fields and woody hills. The solarium is out of sight on the left. The big windows in the middle right are located in a great hall whose organ pipes are housed at the top of the stone tower.
The weeping beech in the middle of today's view is pretty spectacular, but the distant prospect is gone and condos are now tucked behind the trees.
Every big old house makes me wonder what it would be like to live there, regardless of size. I may have met my match with Inisfada.
Enough dreaming. Let's cut across the kitchen court, circle the end of the east wing and head for the front door.
Inside the front door is a stone entry hall which adjoins a (gulp) 163-foot long hallway. This hallway traverses the spine of the main body of the house. The solarium is at the western end; the dining room is at the east. Typical coat rooms flank either side of the entrance hall. We'll take a peek at one before moving along.
Now we're in the middle of the hallway looking west towards the solarium. The front door is to our right; the second image is a detail of the carving above the first arch in the distance.
The heart of Inisfada is the great hall, seen below in its salad days. The widow Brady's grandest hour arguably came in the fall of 1936 when Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, visited the United States and stayed at Inisfada ... for a month. According to the Times, the visiting cardinal "appeared greatly impressed by the magnitude of the structure." Mrs. Brady, who had been received by the pope in 1935, was by this time considered the preeminent Catholic woman in America. Before the cardinal left, she gave a dinner in his honor for 700 guests. It was Inisfada's last great party. In March of 1939, Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII, whose controversial papacy was questioned for its silence on the persecution of the Jews.
Here are Mrs. Brady and the cardinal in the great hall at Inisfada during his 1936 visit. Today the hall is a chapel, intact architecturally but looking quite different with pews.
The door in the image below connects the west end of the great hall to an elegant adjoining salon. Inisfada is filled with so much bravura craftsmanship that it's easy not to notice that a lot of it is missing. The simple surround and painted brick on the fireplace in the second image below would never have passed muster in the Brady days. That's because the original marble mantelpiece was sold at auction. Not long after Cardinal Pacelli's visit, Mrs. Brady moved to Rome and donated her mansion on 122 of its original 300 acres to the Jesuits. In February of 1937, 11,500 curious gawkers filed through Inisfada, at 50 cents a head, to see how the one percent of the one percent lived. That May, a famous 6-day auction of Inisfada's contents raised almost $450,000 for charity. The highest price paid for any single item was $900, on May 13th, for a Georgian claw-and-ball-foot concertina table. A man named E. Holt bought the dining room paneling for $3500. The wine in the cellar was left for the Jesuits.
Here's the salon as it looked before the auction.
The door to the salon is on the right; the dining room is in the distance at the eastern end of the hallway; the front door and entrance hall is to the left of the chandelier. Behind us is the main stair.
Opposite the main stair is another salon, rather obviously simplified, and now used as a meeting room. Hanging on its walls is an evocative set of framed photos showing Inisfada's interiors with original furniture.
Down a short hall just west of the main stair are the solarium, a library and the original billiard room, the latter set up for a zen retreat on the day of my visit.
We're back in the hallway facing east. The front door is to the left; the great hall is behind the wall on the right; the dining room is dead ahead. A secondary main staircase, located at the east end of the hallway and a tick or two less grand than the first, is out of sight to the left of the dining room.
This was originally the breakfast room, located next to the dining room and across from the eastern main stair. The door in the third image below originally opened into the great hall. It is now blocked by the altar on the other side.
The vintage image of the dining room shows the late 17th Century pine paneling that went for $3500 in 1937. The modern view is of the room today.
Far more interesting than the cannibalized dining room are Inisfada's extensive — and virtually intact — pantry and kitchen suites.
When I stepped inside Inisfada for the first time, I wanted to use the front door. By the same token, when Tom and I went upstairs I wanted to take the main stair. This required a considerable hike back from the servant hall in the image above.
The elevator clanks up and down with a good deal of wheezing and complaint but appears to be dependable.
The master bedroom seen in the vintage image below was part of a luxurious suite located at the top of the main stairs and directly over the solarium. This suite was not just chopped up, but finely diced into fourteen cells for Jesuit seminarians. The ceiling beams, visible in the second image below, are all that survive.
We're looking east on the second floor from the top of the main stair. The master bedroom suite is behind us; guestrooms are ahead on the left; the upper portion of the great hall is behind the wall on the right; the door at the end of the hall leads to a sort of high-value guest suite. Cardinal Pacelli stayed there during his visit in 1936. To the right of the suite is a private chapel dedicated to St. Genevieve; to the left is the second main stair.
This door leads to a musicians' gallery that overlooks the great hall. The original organ pipes are two flights up inside a stone tower on top of the house.
The guestrooms, as expected, are lovely, even though numerous fireplace mantels have gone missing and the once grand bathrooms have been "updated" in ersatz fashion.
I love mail slots in guestroom doors. How delicious to think of being a guest in Manhasset for long enough to have your mail delivered there.
Here's the east main stair. The private chapel is across from it.
I have seen a few private chapels in my time, but this one is hard to beat.
The first view below shows the lobby of the high-value guest suite. It's got two rooms and a formerly sumptuous bath that has been converted into a dispirited looking kitchen. The second image looks west from the lobby to the master suite in the distance.
Another second floor hall, this one located above the kitchen and pantries, leads to more guestrooms, and ends finally in a servants' stair at the east end of the house.
The "not-for-the-servants" main stair on the east leads, unexpectedly, to a multitude of servants' rooms distributed along very very long third floor corridors. I like the ceiling motifs at the top of this stair, although I cannot figure out what's chasing the rabbit, and do not understand the meaning of three entwined fishes.
Inisfada is so big that it wasn't until I got home and looked at my photos that I realized I'd forgot to go to the top of the tower. Tom Evrard understood completely, invited me back, even picked me up at the station in Manhasset. Climbing the stone stairs to the highest point on Inisfada was a voyage of discovery — of organ pipes, multiple chimneys, and a panorama of former farmland whose modern tree-shaded subdivisions, from this height anyway, look like virgin forestland.
From the roof, we went straight to the basement for my obligatory look at the boilers. These twin behemoths, each hiding beneath a sort of giant tea cosy, burned 80,000 gallons of oil last winter.
We exited the house via the kitchen court and walked around to the front.
Genevieve Brady's childlessness is said to have instilled in her a particular love for children. This may or may not have been true, but it is supposed to explain the unexpected presence of whimsical stone medallions on the facade depicting nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters. Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots are easy to identify.
There's an odd one in the gable above the master bedroom, identified by one source as Mother Hubbard. To me it looks like a scene from Hansel and Gretel. The same year that Mrs. Brady donated Inisfada to the church, she married William J. Babbington Macauley, the Irish Free State's Minister to the Holy See. One year later, in 1938, at the age of 53, she died in Rome as suddenly and unexpectedly as her first husband. A thousand people attended her memorial at St. Ignatius Loyola on Park and 84th. She was buried, curiously, alongside that first husband at a Pennsylvania novitiate he had endowed before his death.
My guides, Tom Evrard and Kathy Waldow, were the souls of hospitality and helpfulness during two visits to Inisfada. In fact, everybody there couldn't have been nicer.
After 75 years, first as a Jesuit school, then a seminary and more recently a retreat house, St. Ignatius is closing Inisfada next year. This was an economic decision that has saddened everybody. The church's long stewardship of this invaluable cultural artifact comes, however, with a responsibility to the greater community. Disaster threatens Inisfada, as much from vandals who would destroy it if improperly secured, to developers who would demolish it to build another condominium community. Not yet officially on the market, interested parties are circling the property already. We can only hope that everyone involved does the right thing. As of this writing the retreat house is still functioning; the link is www.inisfada.net.

Click here to read the 7.30.13 piece in the New York Times.
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