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A GRYMES HILL MANSION IS TRANSFORMED INTO A SHOWCASE OF ITALIAN AMERICAN CULTURE

by Jennifer Viske • Photos By Amessé Photography

Gina Biancardi is a woman on a mission.
In November 2008, she purchased an old and neglected mansion atop Grymes Hill with dreams of restoring it to original splendor, while also converting it to an arts and cultural center for the community to enjoy. It was the realization of a lifelong vision.

“It was a dream of mine since I was a kid,” Biancardi said. “I wanted to open people’s eyes to exactly what it means to be Italian instead of the negative stereotypes that are out there. We’re good, hardworking, honest people with strong family values. My parents worked hard and always put their family first. That’s what I’m all about. No matter what your country of origin, that immigrant experience is powerful, and propels many to achieve great things.”

Biancardi’s parents, born in Southern Italy, emigrated in 1960 in search of a better life. They settled in Harlem, then the Bronx, to create a home for the young clan. Educating their daughters was a top priority, and they worked day and night to see that happen, but maintaining family values and traditions was also of great importance.

“That connection to the old country never left the household, and to this day, visiting Nonno and Nonna for Sunday dinner is what keeps me and my three girls grounded in this fast-paced world,” Biancardi said.

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While with many Italian-Americans, there’s a geographical disconnect, Biancardi was fortunate enough to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Italy every summer.

“I learned the language, I was exposed to all of that culture, from North to South, and most importantly I felt the warmth and spirit—it’s when my love affair with Italy began,” she smiled. At 19, Biancardi founded FIERI (“pride” in Italian), a social and networking organization for younger Italian Americans that has since grown to become a national organization with several chapters. With respect to her newest project, Biancardi explained that a little serendipity was a key factor.

“My girls go to Notre Dame Academy across the street, and when I saw the mansion was for sale, I knew it would be perfect for a cultural center. It reminded me of Italy right away,” the Todt Hill resident explained. “The neo-Renaissance style, terracotta roof, regal columns…the rolling hills. It just screamed Italian cultural center.”

She calls it Casa Belvedere, which in Italian means “house with a beautiful view.” The Stirn Roebling Mansion is a city landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic places, and its surrounding property constitutes nearly three acres overlooking the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge and New York Harbor. Now, Casa Belvedere houses both the Italian Cultural Foundation and the newly-created Belvedere Club. The mission of the foundation is to preserve, promote, and celebrate all things Italian—with people of all backgrounds—through educational programs, exhibits, and events.

The Belvedere Club is a private dining venue designed to offset the costs of maintaining the home, restoring the building, and growing its myriad of educational and cultural programs offered to the public—its model a hybrid of The Columbus Club in Manhattan and The Pope Foundation in Westchester. As a successful businesswoman for many years, Biancardi recognizes that any corporation, for-profit or not, needs a business plan—a model to set its course and direction and ensure long-term sustainability. “In this case, the model is to recruit enough founding members and benefactors to establish an endowment of sorts to ensure the foundation’s survival after its founders and benefactors are gone,” she explained. “It’s a legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

The foundation’s mission is to preserve and celebrate
All things Italian—
With people of all backgrounds.

Biancardi has been working for the last five years with a dedicated board of directors and a small staff to raise money to restore and transform the home and to create innovative programs, exhibits, and events under the venture’s banner. “It’s been a huge undertaking…probably the most challenging thing I have ever done in my entire life. And thank God I’m an optimistic person,” she laughed. “In the beginning, there were so many nay-sayers; they said, ‘You’ll never get approved. It will never happen. You’re crazy.’ But, thankfully, there were also some strong supporters and believers.” In the meanwhile, Biancardi said, the program feedback has been positive and Casa Belvedere is now seeing over 16,000 visitors a year.

“People are loving what we are doing,” she offered. “We started programming in 2009 and have been going ever since. It’s been a lot of juggling, however. We took an old house that needed $5 million in renovation—a huge challenge, and frustrating sometimes. We’re trying to fulfill the mission and goals of the organization, but you still have to deal with the roof leaking and pipes breaking.” Biancardi added that she also juggles work with the city on permits and funding while engage members and other major benefactors, and freely admitted that she needs help.

“You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and I’m very grateful that, from the beginning, a few people believed in me and my vision, and have been very supportive. I need more of those kind of people…lots more.” Of the mansion’s 14,000 square-feet, only 3,500 on the first floor are renovated and restored. Once the transformation of the entire building is complete, plans are to open the Italy America Hall of Fame Museum, which will highlight the contributions of Italian Americans in film, art, music, fashion, culinary arts, public service, and sports. The strategy, Biancardi said, is to keep the public interested by rotating exhibits every six to nine months. The third floor will be a permanent exhibition of Italian American sports heroes’ memorabilia and photos. Some of that sports exhibit, Biancardi announced, will debut on October 11 at Rome Through Richmond Town, which replaces the Columbus Day parade with a new event highlighting Italian American culture, food, music, fashion, and art.

While Casa Belvedere still needs more investment (approximately $2 million) to build out the cellar, second, and third floors, and make the entire building ADA- and Fire and Safetycompliant, the programming continues. Language and cooking classes, art exhibits, musical performances, and cultural enrichment programs start up again soon, and the foundation’s biggest fundraiser, the annual car show and festival Motori D’Italia/ Festa D’Italia, is scheduled for Sept. 27 and 28. Despite the challenges, Biancardi remains hopeful for the future, but admits she can’t do it alone. “Even a well-oiled machine has many moving parts that need to work independently from the others while still contributing to the big picture,” she said. “This has to be a shared vision.”

Casa Belvedere
79 Howard Ave. / 718.273.7660 / casa-belvedere.org/blog