Frank Castagna, Rita Castagna AJC Awards, New York

Frank Castagna, principal of Castagna Realty Co. and steward of the Americana Manhasset, one of the nation’s most productive and luxurious shopping centers, died Tuesday morning at his home on Long Island following a bout with cancer. Castagna was 91 years old.

Castagna was also a philanthropist and active in community affairs, supporting such causes as The North Shore Land Alliance, The Katz Institute for Women’s Heath, the Northwell Health System, Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, the Nassau County Museum of Art and The American Jewish Committee.

The family-owned and operated Castagna Realty will be run by Catherine Castagna, Frank’s daughter and president of the company. Frank’s wife Rita is also a principal in the company.

Castagna Realty develops and manages commercial, residential and mixed-use properties including Wheatley Plaza in Greenvale, N.Y., which is 2 miles east of Americana Manhasset; Brady Brooks Falls, a 270-acre development of homes in Pawling, N.Y., and Castagna Senior Park, a 200-acre mixed-use development in progress, also in Pawling.

But Castagna made his mark on the luxury market with the 220,000-square-foot Americana Manhasset and its stable of tony designer shops ensconced in an expensively landscaped, open-air shopping setting with a concierge, seamstresses, personal shoppers, easy parking and restaurants. Among the tenants: Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermès, Ralph Lauren, London Jewelers, and Hirshleifers, which sells an array of designer and contemporary labels.

The tall and lanky Castagna was vigilant about continually transforming the Americana Manhasset by regularly reviewing the tenant roster, recapturing space from retailers that no longer resonated with customers and providing square footage to designer labels in vogue. Hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent annually on flowers alone, and more was spent keeping up the ornamental grasses and perennials.

“Every morning, Frank walked the center, looking for ways to make it even more beautiful. I loved seeing him out there,” said Lori Hirshleifer, owner and buyer of Hirshleifers, a large family-run designer specialty store in the Americana. “After our father [Paul Hirshleifer, the grandson of the founder of Hirshleifers] passed on, Frank became a mentor to us. He never said no.”

Shoppers come from several wealthy Long Island towns aside from Manhasset such as Great Neck, Sands Point, Roslyn, Brookville, and Locust Valley, but the Americana Manhasset also draws visitors from as far west as Manhattan, east to Oyster Bay in Nassau County, and north to south, from the Long Island Sound to Garden City.

Castagna was hands-on and traveled to Europe, Asia and around the U.S. visiting showrooms and attending fashion shows to learn about the latest concepts in luxury and to lure them into the center, which for him was always a work in progress.

“We’re always anticipating changes as new trends and new designers arise,” he once told WWD. The re-merchandising process, he said, is “like a perpetual chess game of moving the pieces, but in some ways it’s simpler. That’s because we’ve become more focused.”

There has hardly been a time when the American Manhasset wasn’t fully leased, and in peak years, sales hovered around $1,800 to $2,000 a square foot.

Castagna took issue with anyone who referred to his crown jewel as a “mall,” insisting that the property didn’t fit the mold since it lacked traditional department store anchors that fill most malls, and provided an exclusive, more intimate shopping experience steeped in luxury. The Americana, as it is commonly referred to, is further distinguished by its ornate landscaping by Oehme Van Sweden and urbane, limestone-rich architecture by Peter Marino, who initially resisted working on the project.

“When I called Peter, I received a curt answer, ‘I don’t do shopping centers,’” Castagna once recalled. “That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.”

Known for his patience and reserved, methodical manner, Castagna persisted. “After several calls and a meeting in his office, Peter agreed to do our master plan. He didn’t say a lot, but he was a good listener, and he finally agreed.…Six months and many bills later, I was aghast. How could we ever afford to complete such a magnificent concept, which envisioned a sophisticated, urban shopping environment as opposed to a suburban one? I swallowed hard and accepted the challenge. Store by store, section by section, with Peter’s guidance, the master plan was under way and new luxury tenants came on board including Ralph Lauren and Tiffany.”

For his part, Marino characterized the Americana Manhasset as “an interesting suburban phenomenon with the ability to keep one foot in the city with sophisticated shops and one foot in the country with trees and plantings.”

Located at the intersection of Searingtown Road and Northern Boulevard on a commercial stretch known at “The Miracle Mile,” the Americana Manhasset is part of a rare breed of independently owned designer shopping centers around the country considered “A” centers based on their superior sales productivity. The group includes Bal Harbour Shops in north Miami owned by the Whitman family; South Coast Plaza mall in Costa Mesa, Calif., owned by the Segerstrom family; Highland Park Village in Dallas owned by HP Village Partners, and The Bellevue Collection in Seattle, owned by Kemper Development Co.

Castagna Realty, founded by Frank’s father in 1922, was a masonry contracting company called Gerace and Castagna. The company evolved into a general contractor, performing masonry and carpentry with its own construction crews while subcontracting the balance of the construction. Gerace and Castagna always maintained the overall management of its projects.

In 1965, the family business was renamed Castagna & Son Inc. Frank helped spearhead major public works projects including New York City Police Headquarters, New York State Supreme Courthouse, North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New Bellevue Hospital, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, University Hospital at Stony Brook and other notable jobs.

The Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Castagna joined the company in 1950 after receiving a degree in civil engineering. Five years later, the company purchased the property in Manhasset and began developing the Americana Manhasset. Midmarket tenants like Dressbarn, Bakers Shoes, Lerner Shops, a drive-through bank and Waldbaum’s set the ambience. It was a typical strip center yet Frank had an aspirational vision for the property that was first realized when Marino designed a Giorgio Armani shop inside the Hirshleifers in 1986. After the Armani shop opened, Castagna approached Marino about creating a master plan for Americana.

For decades, the Americana was Long Island’s only major destination for luxury fashion until the Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City added Neiman Marcus and a luxury wing of designer shops in 2016, complementing the preexisting Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom department stores. The Americana Manhasset also faces competition from the Saks Fifth Avenue freestanding store in Garden City; Bloomingdale’s and Saks in the Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington Station, and a few scattered specialty stores such as Mitchells, previously called Marshs, in Huntington.

Castagna and his tenants at the Americana were concerned about the luxury expansion at Roosevelt Field, but Castagna once told WWD that the Neiman’s store there had no measurable effect on his property.

The Americana dodged another bullet when Taubman Cos. gave up a two-decade battle with residents in Syosset, N.Y., where it planned to build the Mall at Oyster Bay. Taubman sold the property to Simon Property Group and partnered with Simon to create a residential concept with a park and no fashion tenants.

With competition rising, Castagna enabled several of his top tenants to expand their footprints. Major expansions were undertaken by Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton, Hirshleifer’s and Hermès. Also, the scope of Americana Manhasset’s offering grew with the addition of Tesla and Bandier, among other brands.

The Americana has consistently elevated its service, advertising and marketing, creating beautifully photographed campaigns and catalogues on sets that could be anywhere, from the Caribbean to Coney Island.

Another constant has been the team at Castagna Realty. It’s been a loyal, long-standing group of managers, notably Deirdre Costa Major, senior vice president and president of the retail division; Andrea Sanders, senior vice president and creative director; Robert Ronzoni, chief operating officer, as well as the late John J. Gutleber, who served as president and chief executive officer.

Castagna exhibited an obvious sense of pride in what he accomplished at Americana Manhasset and reveled in discussing new tenants or innovations he brought to the setting. Yet he believed it wasn’t necessarily the smell of wealth on the premises that made the initial impression. It was the smell of the flowers. “The first thing people say is, ‘Don’t you love the flowers?’” he once observed. “I think of flowers as fashion.”

Aside from his wife Rita and daughter Catherine, Castagna is survived by his son Fred; Catherine’s husband Ernie; his grandsons Brian, Michael, Frank and Mario, and his step-granddaughters Amber and Marissa.

Services and gatherings at this time are private. The family requests that any donations in Frank’s name be made to North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Nassau County Museum of Art and Island Harvest.

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