Rising on the Rondout: Reher Center for Immigrant Culture & History

reher-center-@At this point in time, the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History in Kingston is more of a community resource than an actual place to step inside. As an ongoing project of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County, the Reher Center sponsors exhibits and events celebrating the history of cultural diversity in the Rondout District. (One of its efforts involves sponsoring the annual Kingston Block Party every summer, renamed the Kingston Multicultural Festival this year.)

But a permanent home for the Reher Center that will make it a true destination is in the works. In 2004, the Jewish Federation of Ulster County was gifted the former Reher Bakery building at 99-101 Broadway by its last occupant, Hymie Reher. The Reher family bakers were an institution in the Rondout neighborhood throughout most of the 20th century, with longtime residents still remembering the aroma of fresh bread baking and the texture and taste of the product produced by the generations of the family. Stories are still told of home deliveries – in some cases directly to the kitchen table – and conversations with one of the sisters who ran the retail shop.

The bakery never officially closed, just sort of winded down as the generations died off. Even after the bakery ceased to operate full-time, Hymie Reher was known to fire up the huge coal oven occasionally to make hard rolls for himself and a few friends. A devout Orthodox Jew (he was the gabbai at the local synagogue, assisting in the running of the services), Hymie gifted the bakery building to the Jewish Federation of Ulster County upon his death.

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In deciding what the best use of the building would be, it occurred to members of the Federation that the story of the Reher family – Austrian Jewish immigrants – was really the story of all the ethnic groups who have put down roots in Kingston from the early 19th century up through the present day. Like the canal and brickyard workers, and the tavern and inn proprietors, the Reher family bakers transformed their neighborhood for the better through hard work and perseverance. So in honoring those traditions and desiring to create a center of inclusiveness for today’s multicultural Kingston community, the Jewish Federation decided to renovate the place where the Reher family lived and worked and make it a permanent home for the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building located on the northernmost boundary of the Broadway/West Strand Historic District retains a number of its original details. When renovations are completed, the Reher Center will contain an exhibition space, library and archives with a focus on the immigrant and mercantile history of the Rondout.

The work has proceeded so far with the help of state and City of Kingston grants. According to Geoffrey Miller, chair of the Reher Center Committee, the first phase of renovation is now complete. Water and drainage issues have been taken care of, and the bakery side of the building at 99 Broadway has been stabilized. Work has also been done to the foundation on the storefront side of the building at 101 Broadway. “We’ve been opening the bakery on a limited basis, giving tours as far as we can go,” Miller says. “We’re in the process now of putting together an application for a follow-up Environmental Protection Fund grant to finish the restoration of the building envelope. We hope to be able to have the bakery open for tours on a regular basis by sometime over the summer, if we can get this grant. Once the entire building is stabilized, then we can raise funds to restore the inside.”

Miller is also working on expanding the Reher Center Committee, enlisting volunteers with museum backgrounds who have experience in administration of cultural institutions, curating exhibits and fundraising. “We hope that within a couple of years, we will have enough of the bakery open that people can enjoy the experience and have room for meetings. We’ll have exhibits in place, and as we get the funds to open the upstairs family residence, we’ll have office and library space within the next five years.”

Hopefully things will move faster with some museum professionals on board, Miller says. “We want people with knowledge of museum development because interpretation is something we need to look seriously at, and it will inform how we proceed with the outside of the building. We need to get people involved who can look at the structure, look at the collections and the potential and say, ‘This is the way the building should be developed; this makes the most sense for the community.’”

And while it’s not likely that the old coal-fired baking ovens will ever be fired up again (and nobody has yet found the Reher family recipes), Miller says that they’d like to have an arrangement at some point with a local bakery to provide baked goods for purchase on-site.

Ultimately, he adds, “We’re a community-building organization. Our goal is to reach out to all community members and build relationships for the future. We hope that people will see us as a museum that’s serving the entire community and speaking to the issues that are important in terms of immigration and acceptance and celebration of what it means to be a multicultural society.”

 

Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, 99-101 Broadway, Kingston; www.rehercenter.org.

Jewish Federation of Ulster County, 1 Albany Avenue, G-10, Kingston; (845) 338-8131, www.ucjf.org.