Proposed sale of American Irish landmark in Manhattan 'deeply disappointing'

Historical society put Fifth Avenue property on market for $52m last month

The American Irish Historical Society put the Beaux-Arts property on Fifth Avenue on the market for $52 million last month. Image: Google Maps

The American Irish Historical Society put the Beaux-Arts property on Fifth Avenue on the market for $52 million last month. Image: Google Maps

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The Government has intervened in a controversial plan by the American Irish Historical Society to sell its landmark building in Manhattan, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney describing the proposed sale as “a deeply disappointing development.”

The historical society put the Beaux-Arts property on Fifth Avenue on the market for $52 million (€43.2 million) last month. The association has received hundreds of thousands of euro from the Irish taxpayer in recent years through the emigrant support fund run by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Replying to a parliamentary question from Cork East Fine Gael TD David Stanton, Mr Coveney said the building on Fifth Avenue is “a cherished symbol of the profound relationship that has grown between our two countries through the centuries”.

“While the society is more than its premises, the building on Fifth Avenue is an iconic emblem of Ireland in New York and a vital part of the infrastructure that underpins US-Ireland relations,” he said.

The society has been in continuous operation since 1897. Former members include president Theodore Roosevelt and renowned tenor John McCormack. In 1940 the society bought its current headquarters, located on the upper east side of Manhattan, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most recently, the building’s interior featured in the hit HBO series Succession.  

The society received a total of $993,000 between 2008 and 2018 from the emigrant support fund. The funding has helped cover salaries, outreach initiatives and resources for the society’s library. The association also has several other high-profile sponsors and funders, and regularly hosts events and exhibits.

It is understood that the society has been under financial pressure for some time, a challenge exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has halted events at the venue. A GoFundMe campaign was launched last year as income suffered. There have also been internal conflicts within the board, culminating with the ousting of James Sheehy Normile as president and board member.

Petition

An online petition to stop the sale of the building has garnered more than 3,000 signatures and galvanised support from large parts of Irish America.

Efforts are also under way to petition the attorney general of New York in the belief that non-profit organisations may have to secure the approval of the state attorney general or local courts in order to dispose of some of their assets.

In its listing for the building, New York real estate agent Brown Harris Stevens states the property is “largely intact” more than 100 years after its construction. “Buying a house located directly on Fifth Avenue is like acquiring the Holy Grail because such a limited number remain,” it states. “Simply put, this opportunity to acquire a building of this calibre directly on Fifth Avenue is one that may never occur again.”