Tara Circle moves into new Yonkers home

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By Harry Keaney

After almost a decade, Tara Circle finally has a home of its own. But now, like many first-time home buyers, the Irish-American cultural and education group must devise a way to make ends meet.

Still, when Tara’s president, Jim Rice, looks at the 72-room Alder Manor in Yonkers, he sees not only the Irish-American group’s new headquarters but also the potential for revenue-generating opportunities that he believes will finally put paid to Tara’s doubters and naysayers.

"It should be self-sustaining," Rice said without offering specifics.

"By the end of the month, we hope to have a business plan completed," Rice said during a tour of Alder Manor last week. "We have the collateral, [but] what we need is a good business plan. Writing it is not hard, but the difficulty is getting the information to back up your assumptions."

Tara’s business plan is one that many people and organizations in the Irish-American community will be eager to examine, particularly because so many of them contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the group, money spent on the unsuccessful attempt to acquire the 58-acre King’s College property in Briarcliff Manor. Virtually all of that money — from Tara charter members, each of whom paid $5,000 — was spent on fees to consultants, planners and lawyers who worked on the group’s permit applications in connection with King’s College.

Tara still owes about $150,000 to creditors arising from work done in relation to King’s College, Rice acknowledged.

A new chapter

It’s clear that for Rice, the acquisition of Alder Manor, at 1085 North Broadway, marks a new chapter in the life of Tara Circle.

"If there is debt on this, it will be because we have the building," he said, noting that when the organization tried to acquire King’s College, Tara spent money without first having a facility.

Yonkers bought the Alder Manor property in 1995 and subsequently issued what is known as a "request for proposals." In May of 1997, the city accepted Tara’s proposal and earlier this month formally signed off on the permits allowing Tara to take over.

If all goes according to plan, Tara, a non-profit group, will acquire the property for $1.2 million, initially leasing it for two years at $100,000 a year and then completing its contract to purchase for the remaining $1 million.

Rice believes it will cost more than $2 million to restore the property to its former grandeur.

"With sweat equity, it will be worth a lot more," he said of the property’s potential.

Rice envisions that the toil of volunteers and sponsors will restore Alder Manor to its former grandeur one room at a time. There are, he points out, many ornate rooms with massive open fireplaces, an upstairs room has a swimming pool, a columned outdoor amphitheater, and lush gardens.

"We will get it done some way or another," he said.

Finding the money

This far, Tara has obtained a $100,000 state grant, arranged with the help of Republican State Senator Nick Spano, whose area includes Yonkers. Beyond that, however, the group’s restorations plans are long on ideas but short on cash and commitments.

Rice said he hopes the group can obtain other grants as they become available. He wonders whether institutions, such as banks, and local businesses, like Stew Leonards and Home Depot, might be willing to sponsor the restoration of individual rooms. He believes revenue can be generated on the property through banquets, seminars, art exhibits and lectures, a book store, gift shop, maybe even from renting space to other businesses.

"Interior decorators may take a room and use it as a showcase for their work," Rice said, adding that antique stores might consider using some rooms for furniture displays and sales while the gardens could be used for sculpture exhibitions and sales.

The property, which includes a separate stone chapel, banquet hall and gardens, could also be ideal as a self-contained wedding venue, Rice said.

The property, in fact, has already proved to have a degree of appeal. Last Thursday, photographers and models for the Italian fashion magazine Amica were using it as a backdrop. Tellingly, though, for them the attraction of Alder Manor was clearly its offer of run-down elegance, not sparkling restoration.

Achieving that level of restoration will not be easy, Rice understands, particularly since Tara will not be asking its 112 charter members for further donations. It will, however, ask some of them if they would contribute their original subvention certificates, investments into Tara that are redeemable in the way that bonds are.

"That would help out a lot; some people have already done it," Rice said.

"For initial operating capital we will go to a financial institution," Rice said. "I do not think it makes much sense to be going out raising money all the time in fund-raising. But if members and the public are going to be attracted to the building, then it will be a success."

Historic landmark

Alder Manor is a palatial 1912 mansion registered as a national historic landmark. Set on 5.8 acres, it was built by William Boyce Thompson, who rose from obscurity in Montana to become a copper magnate and one of the wealthiest men in America at the turn of the century.

Migrating from Canada in the early 19th century, the Thompson family settled on the American frontier in Alder Gulch, a gold mining community that is now Virginia City. Thompson was born in 1869. After graduating from Columbia School of Mines, Thompson’s interests expanded to copper. It was a time when whole villages of Irish miners were resettling in Montana.

Thompson and his wife, Gertrude, eventually moved east and acquired a parcel of land along the Hudson on which he built the 72-room Alder Manor.

Before he died in 1930, Thompson left a trust of $2 million to his wife and daughter on the condition that they live at Alder Manor. Twenty years later, Gertrude willed the property to the Archdiocese of New York, hence its use for many years as the main house of Elizabeth Seton College and, subsequently, as the Yonkers campus of Iona College.

Since the early 1990s, however, the mansion has been effectively abandoned, with the years of neglect clearly having taken their toll.

In addition, vandals and thieves have prowled and looted, taking such items as a brass nameplate beside the building’s main entrance door, a magnificent chandelier that once dangled majestically over a grand marble staircase, a portrait of Cardinal Terence Cooke, a Tiffany glass window and antique light fixtures.

"It’s criminal, but there’s still a lot of good left," Rice said as he strolled through rooms unused for almost a decade, the sounds of restoration work echoing through what was once one of the grandest homes on the banks of the Hudson.

"We would look at this place as a meeting place where younger Irish can go," Rice said.

Tara’s mission

Closer to Tara’s cultural and educational mission, about 400 people attended a Bloomsday celebration in Alder Manor last Saturday. It was, in effect, Tara’s open house, the first opportunity for members and the public to glimpse the mansion’s Renaissance-style beauty. The day’s activities featured an original dramatization, "James Joyce Fondly Remembered," directed and narrated by Neil Hickey and featuring John Keating, John Leighton, Fidelma Murphy, Aideen O’Kelly and Ciaran O’Reilly. Terry Donnelly performed the "Molly Bloom Soliloquy," which she had done the night before at the Symphony Space Joyce celebration. The were period songs by Colette O’Leary.

There were also activities for children as well as music, dance, exhibits and refreshments.

Whatever about the banalities of financial matters, it’s obvious that for many in Tara, their love of their culture, and their eagerness to hand it down, is what drives them.

"After years of being a hedge school, the faculty and students at Tara are thrilled to have a center to call our own where we can develop exciting new programs and events," said Louisa Burns-Bisogno, Tara’s executive director of education and the performing arts.

"Our summer program for continuing students in Irish language, music and dance began last week. We will begin our regular Irish studies program in September."

Burns-Bisogno added that during the summer, Tara has planned a "Work for Your Supper and Session," during which "volunteers will pitch in to sparkle Alder Manor" and then "follow it with a buffet supper and brilliant music."

Come morning, however, the bills will still slip through Tara’s letter box, making the group’s challenge of converting culture into cash the ultimate decider in how successful it will be in its new home.

Still, said Rice, "As we get further along and more people are becoming involved and there is more activity, the hope is that this place would be humming."

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