Gina Biancardi is proud of her Italian heritage. Her parents, immigrants from Italy, struggled to adjust to the American way, alienated from other parts of life in the Bronx because of their inability to speak English.
It’s an experience that Biancardi will never forget – one that left a mark on her, and one that led her to get involved with Italian-American cultural groups from the young age of 19.
“That really resonates throughout your whole life about the immigrant experience, which is not only indicative of Italians, but all first-generation immigrants,” she said. “When you realize that they do it for their family…you want to keep that going. You don’t want that to be forgotten.”
In late 2008, Biancardi took her passion for honoring her heritage to a new level when she purchased the Stirn Mansion and land at 79 Howard Ave. – an historic New York City landmark – and donated it to her newly formed nonprofit organization, Casa Belvedere.
“I had the intention from the very beginning to restore it and convert it into an Italian arts and culture center,” she said. “When I first walked into the mansion, it seemed to me it should be a museum of some sort.”
Casa Belvedere means “house with a beautiful view” in the Italian heritage, and Staten Island’s version does not disappoint. Sitting atop Grymes Hill, the property has picturesque views of the New York Harbor and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The mission of the organization is to “celebrate everything Italian,” Biancardi said, which it does in part through programs and exhibits on art, culture, cuisine and cars, to name a few. It will show the non-Italian community a completely different side to the heritage that often gets portrayed in a bad light on television and film.
The project is not inclusive of the Italian heritage only, though. Casa Belvedere has plans to work with any other cultural center in the area that is willing to partner with them. It has already hosted a book presentation with other Jewish community centers that featured Elizabeth Bettina’s “It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust.”
“There’s always a mix with different cultures. We’d like to work with all the organizations on Staten Island,” Biancardi said. “We think what we bring to the table are very unique programs that aren’t being offered anywhere else, and maybe we can rotate those programs at Casa Belvedere and other locations throughout Staten Island.”
While the programs and plans for the center are vast, it needs a lot of help with capital improvements. Starting the effort as the recession was at its worst has made fund raising a challenge, to say the least. In addition to the $1 million donation of the building and land itself, the mansion needs a $2.5 million renovation to update sprinkler systems, add handicap accessibility and make other necessary upgrades to convert it into a public building.
Casa Belvedere currently hosts weekly events such as cooking demonstrations, book presentations, lectures and language lessons, but the mansion can only host 75 people at a time right now. When fully updated, the mansion will offer 12,000 square feet of usable space, but right now, only one small part of the first floor, which accounts for about 2,500 square feet, is in use.
Biancardi said the organization is utilizing work-arounds for now, including renting the kitchen at Notre Dame Academy for some of its culinary programs. The plan is to focus on one phase of construction at a time, and she hopes that by the end of this year, they can move the culinary program to the mansion.
“We happened to do this at a time when the city was in its worst fiscal crisis ever, when people were holding back their discretionary funds. It was the worst possible time,” she said.
The bulk of the funds that Casa Belvedere needs will be used for capital improvements. There are grant programs available through the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs for which, until 2012, the organization didn’t qualify. Biancardi is planning to tap into those funds next year and is hoping other public officials and business leaders will step up to help out, as well.
“We need a large sum of money to really get this done,” she said. “The longer we don’t get it done, the longer we can’t function at full capacity and the more we’re in the hole. We do all these events, but we don’t have any money coming in. The business model, once we are fully functional, will work.”
The complete plan for Casa Belvedere includes four total buildings on the three-acre property, plus a vineyard and gardens that Biancardi says is well worth the investment.
“There’s a real big vision. Everyone needs to understand that this is going to greatly contribute to the landscape of Staten Island,” she said. “If you look at the big picture…it’s a great thing that I’m trying to do for Staten Island.”