Nowadays it is commonplace to see a building erected almost overnight with cost-savings being the driving factor. However with the Inisfada (St. Ignatius Retreat House) in Manhasset Long Island the notion of cost-savings was the only factor not given thought when erecting this beautifully crafted architecture.
I was fortunate to have the knowledgeable and gracious Father Damien show me around Inisfada and give me a detailed history. Father Damien, by the way, is writing a book about Inisfada and the people who built it and lived there. From the way he brought the story alive during my visit I have no doubt that it will be a best seller. With that said here is an abbreviated version of what I saw and learned.
The story begins with Anthony Brady, an Irish born Episcopalian boy from France who came to America to make his fortunate. Known as the ‘mole’ of Wall Street he had amassed a large fortunate amongst his enterprises which included being the Chairman of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit and the President of New York Edison Company. By time he had passed away he left an estate valued at $70 million.
His eldest son Nicholas with his education and training became the director of 24 of the corporations his father had amassed. And although Nicholas shared his father’s knowledge of business he had a different outlook on life when it came to priorities. More specifically he married Genevieve Garvan, converted to Catholicism, and was very much a spiritual man.
it is Nicholas and Genevieve that built Insifada, Gaelic for Long Island) to suit their lifestyles
With that said, it was considered one of the most elaborate mansions in the entire United States. It demanded such notoriety perhaps for a few distinct reasons.
First, the Brady’s were know for entertaining many high level people, including Pope Pius XII and therefore their home needed to match the power of the people who visited it. It may have also become so elaborate to set it apart from the nearly 300 other mansions in Long Island. And perhaps it also needed to be the talk of the town to let others know that it was the home of an Irishman that was set above and beyond all the others. After all, during this time period there were only about four Irish men who had made their fortune in the NYC/ Long Island area. The Irish back then were considered amongst the lowest of people and would take jobs that all other groups of people including the black people would turn down. So perhaps this mansion was a symbol that the Irish were just as good as anyone who had stepped foot on this great land. Lastly it could have been because they had no children and therefore the home became their child where they poured all their time, energy and love. In fact, because they had no children, and because of their great love for their religion, when they died they willed the mansion in 1937 to the Jesuits. Although Mrs. Brady’s hopes had been that it would become a school for boys its fate would be that it would become a retreat estate.
Inisfada began with a 300 acre tract of land that slowly over the next four years began to support an exquisite estate. By time the initial development of the estate had been complete in 1920 the Brady’s had spent in excess of two million dollars. This Tudor-Elizabethan mansion was designed by second generation architect John T. Windrim.
When one first goes through the great gates and up the driveway a sense of one’s own insignificance overwhelms you as you first gain site of this enormous structure.
One of the first features that captured my attention was the chimneys. There are 37 chimneys in all, each with their own unique pattern and design.
The next feature that grabbed my attention was the
man and women caved granite figures on either side of the porte-cochere. Father Damien says these figures represent the equally balanced masculine/feminine theme in the house. The other theme that is present is the thought of light and darkness. And throughout the exterior and in select places on the interior are symbols that remind you of a Gaelic theme.
More specifically, there are the zodiac signs carved into the granite and there are various animals that are noted for the Gaelic heritage.
Also of importance in the Bavarian influence of carved figures of nursery
rhyme characters such as Little Red Riding Hood.
There are also numerous medallions including the medallion of St. Genevieve the patron Saint of Paris.
When we were ready to enter the mansion we approached the impressive cooper doors.
On the inside one can view a mix of oak wood ceilings, stone and marble. On either side of the
foyer are what used to be two coat rooms but now serve as large offices. Straight ahead, is a long perpendicular hallway. The floors are original marble and the ceiling is textured to reflect a molded pattern similar to the print that would be found on Persian carpets. There are a few exquisite paintings but most of the paintings as well as the linens and other items were sold at auction when the mansion was given to the Jesuits. The proceeds which amounted to just under half a million dollars went to various charities.
A direct line from the cooper front doors is what used to be called the Great Hall. The Brady’s entertained various notables in this room including the Pope. Father Damien mentioned that
the raised section in the back is where the band would play and it is also where the organ is located. During its’ time the organ was a self-playing instrument that would bellow out its’ beautiful notes throughout the mansion. It was in this room that Father Damien mentioned that Mrs. Brady secured many of the parts of her mansion from various sections of other mansions throughout the world. For example the ceiling in this room came from Buckingham Palace. In this Great Hall one can witness not only high beamed ceilings and original Jacobean wood floors with wooden pegs but also Oreo windows and French doors that look out into the gardens. These gardens all had a theme ranging from Italian to Japanese and were designed by Olmstead Associates. Olmstead, is the man responsible for the layout of Central Park.
There are also various other rooms including the women’s room,
the billiard room and the library. What is interesting about these rooms is that great pain was taken to hide anything that detracted from its’ beauty such as light switches. Such mechanical devices were clearly hidden into the wooden panels.
Also on the first floor that is worth noting is the solarium. The story that interested me the most
was the fact that Mrs. Brady was such a perfectionist when it came to her mansion that three times she had the workers relay the floor as she found it to be not completely level.
The staircases are wonderfully ornate with Native American imagery on them and figures reminiscent of what one would see from ancient museum quality artifacts.
The second floor contains various bedrooms and also Saint Genevieve’s Chapel. Here the Brady’s would have daily mass.
It is adorned with stained glass reflecting various archangels and Saints.
It has the Stations of the Cross so expertly carved that one can feel the emotion that the carved faces emit. Between each station one
can also find each one of the apostles. There is also behind a glass case, relics of various Saints. The altar is marble and gold.
The third floor is where the prominent guests would house their servants and where the Brady’s own servants lived.
When the tour had ended I went out front to face this marvelous structure again and stood by the original wishing well to this great estate. But it made me wonder, if you owned this beaufitul estate what more could you really wish for?