The American Irish Historical Society’s long-time headquarters on Fifth Avenue in New York is for sale, but some members of the Irish community plan to contact the state’s Attorney General Letitia James to block the move and instead institute a new management plan.
The immediate past president-general of the American Irish Historical Society plans on contacting New York State Attorney General Letitia James about the proposed sale of the society’s headquarters at 991 Fifth Avenue, which was listed last week for $52 million.
James Sheehy Normile, a partner at the firm Katten in New York who specializes in not-for-profit law, told the Irish Voice that he plans on submitting a letter to James’ office “within the next week” outlining why the sale of the architecturally unique mansion, which has been owned by the society since 1940, should not proceed. Because the society is a non-profit, any sale of its building and disposition of assets would have to be approved by the attorney general’s office and also a justice of the New York State Supreme Court.
Normile, who served as president-general from the end of 2016 until he was ousted by the board in August of 2019, says he and a number of other prominent Irish Americans believe the stunning building built around 1900 can easily remain the society’s headquarters if it were managed more efficiently with a new business model.
“I think a lot of people plan on petitioning the attorney general’s office to make sure the sale is not approved without a very thorough review of why the board is seeking to sell the building,” Normile said.
“I think the attorney general is likely to say no to the sale. I think if the reasons for selling the building are examined, one would quickly conclude that if there was better management you wouldn’t have to sell.”
Sources have told the Irish Voice that the society’s board concluded it needs a smaller headquarters in order to fulfill the mission of the society and that a sale is the only option for this to happen.
In a separate development last week, the Irish Consulate in New York issued a statement urging the society’s board to withdraw the sale.
“The American Irish Historical Society, a registered not-for-profit organization, 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 U.S.-Ireland relations,” the statement said.
“We are concerned and disappointed to hear of the news that the society intends to sell this building. We urge the board to reconsider this decision, and we stand ready to engage in finding a constructive solution that meets the needs of the community and other stakeholders.”
Sources told the Irish Voice that the consulate felt compelled to issue a statement because of the importance of the society and its headquarters to the Irish American community. The Irish government has given significant financial support to the society throughout the years, including a large sum for a renovation of the building that started in 2006.
“The Irish do not have that many cultural places to go in New York City. It would be hard to see one as important as the American Irish Historical Society to not be around anymore,” a source said.
Normile’s parents were natives of Co. Limerick and he owns a home in the town of Glin where he plans on retiring. He first became acquainted with Dr. Kevin Cahill, the long-time president-general of the society prior to Normile’s tenure, in the mid-1980s. Normile remembers admiring Cahill for tending to the society and always being able to call on Irish American leaders for funds to keep the building going.
“There is no doubt that he has to be given credit for that,” Normile adds.
When he was asked to take over as president-general in 2016 – the position is unpaid and on a volunteer basis – Normile remembers being delighted at the chance to bring in what he called “modern management” of the 25-foot wide society building that sits opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art and houses a treasure trove of historically rare Irish books and documents.
“It wasn’t a question of being like a bull in a china shop, but more doing things slowly,” he recalls. “I got to know some of the board members and Chris Cahill, the executive director.”
Chris Cahill, Dr. Cahill’s son, was more interested in running the cultural aspects of the society, Normile recalled. That suited the new president-general just fine.
“I thought that was great. And with my job as a lawyer repping not-for-profits, I figured we could bring some business organization to the society and really run the place properly. The yearly outlay was about $1 million and I thought we could do it for half. I had other ideas too. So it was with that kind of enthusiasm that I began.”
But eventually, Normile found himself on the outs with some board members who were resistant to change and voted him out of office.
The board’s composition, Normile says, “is a fuzzy thing. Sometimes you think it’s 12 people, other times 16. There are a lot of people on the board who haven’t shown up for a meeting in years.”
It was a disappointing end to his tenure, Normile says. And seeing the Fifth Avenue headquarters go up for sale has been difficult to accept because of the boundless potential of the society if it had fresh management, he adds.
“It wouldn’t be hard at all to make such a beautiful building easily pay for itself. There are plenty of initiatives that could be implemented to keep it running, and keep it in the Irish community,” Normile says.
The society’s building has been closed since the start of the pandemic. Last April it initiated a GoFundMe campaign to raise $100,000; to date, the fund reached $2,935.
“In light of all temporary losses for the society, I hope that you will keep us among your top charitable beneficiaries. An immediate gift now will bridge the current emergency and carry the American Irish Historical Society and its work forward into a sustainable future,” the GoFundMe plea said in part.
When contacted for comment about the sale of the society’s headquarters and its future plans, Yekaterina Lomako, the director of finance and administration for the society, said in an email, “The American Irish Historical Society does not have any further comment on the sale of 991 Fifth Avenue beyond what was in our press release.”
The press release issued last week said, “The American Irish Historical Society is placing its present headquarters at 991 Fifth Avenue on the market. The building, which has been the society's headquarters since 1940, was designed by James R. Turner and William G. Killian in 1901 as a private residence and has had three previous owners. Before moving to 991 Fifth Avenue, the Society was based first at the old Manhattan Hotel, then the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and then at 132 East 16th Street.
“The AIHS is a cultural and scholarly organization devoted to making better known the history of the Irish in the United States as well as celebrating the riches of Irish culture globally. The decision to place the building on the market has been made in order to best enable the society to pursue its cultural and scholarly mission in a sustainable manner. The society has selected the firm of Brown Harris Stevens (broker, Paula Del Nunzio) to represent the sale of the property.”