The Reher Center launches a museum, and asks for help

This undated photo posted on Facebook by the Reher Center shows Mollie Reher standing near her sisters Gertie and Elsie, who are sitting on kitchen chairs. ‘The Rehers set up their chairs here so often that neighbors jokingly called the area ‘Spring Street Beach,’” the center posted.

The Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, located in a historic bakery in the Rondout that catered to the Kingston community for much of the 20th century, is making major strides toward becoming a bona fide museum. In February 2017, having stabilized much of the building with approximately $750,000 in grants, the Reher Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County (UCJF) hired archivist Samantha Gomez-Ferrer and interpretative planner Sarah Litvin to conserve the materials and determine the programming and design of the museum.

“We’re in the process of making the transition from an all-volunteer organization to one with paid staff,” said Reher Committee Chair Geoffrey Miller, who first had the vision to preserve the bakery as a museum and cultural center and has been spearheading the project. “We are putting it on a more professional footing, so development can go forward in a more logical way and we can finally get people into the building.”

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Former owner Hymie Reher deeded the building to the UCJF in 2004, just prior to his death. The bakery and adjoining retail store had remained pretty much the way they were when Hymie was still alive — a veritable time warp of the mid to late-20th century, intact down to the bread slicer on the shelves and decades-old newspapers in the wire rack. The whole thing was veiled in dust, as if the ghost of Reher himself would descend at any moment and fire up his 1916 commercial oven.

But over this winter and early spring, with help from Vassar College intern Anna Rothenberg, Gomez-Ferrer finally got all the artifacts “tagged, inventoried and catalogued,” according to Litvin. That was followed by a professional cleaning — the type of cleaners who “come in when you have a flood. They followed Best Museum Practices, using vinegar, Ivory soap and water. That’s huge.” Scrubbed clean and emptied out, the rooms are now ready to be transformed into a site-specific museum. Litvin envisions it as a re-creation of the retail shop as it appeared in the 1950s and early 1960s, prior to the urban renewal project that demolished much of the neighborhood. Also in the building is a gallery and possible event space in the bakery proper.

Litvin, who is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on women and the parlor piano for the City University of New York Graduate Center — she also does consulting work for the New-York Historical Society — was formerly a full-time employee at The Tenement Museum, designing exhibits and interactive displays and helping create the programming. With its re-created period 19th- and 20th-century railroad apartments and fascinating, thematic story telling, conducted both through tour guides and interactive displays, The Tenement Museum is a major New York City tourist attraction, the portal through which visitors from all over the world learn about the history of the Lower East Side.

Litvin‘s first programming initiative for the Reher Center was the Sunday List project, launched a year ago and culminating last fall in a beautiful, user-friendly website that integrates an important artifact — a hand-scribbled list of customers on a paper bag for the bakery’s Sunday roll orders — with videotaped oral histories of a few of those customers, along with others’ reminiscences of the bakery. With help from Gomez-Ferrer, Litvin also put together another digital exhibit, entitled “Rising Time,” which tells the history of the community and neighborhood through Reher Center artifacts that have been digitized and placed on the Hudson River Valley Heritage website (Hudson River Valley Heritage archives digital collections from numerous historical and cultural organizations).

Litvin has now been named director of the Reher Center. She is currently traveling back and forth between Kingston and New York City but plans to be based in Kingston over the summer. Since February, she has been working with students from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies — another prestigious institution (Reher Committee board member Ward Mintz is a friend of the director of the Graduate Program — an example of how Mintz’s extensive connections in the museum world are helping the Kingston community). The Material Culture class, taught by professor Cynthia Falk, has visited the Reher Center several times. “They’re working on a furnishing plan, starting with the windows,” said Litvin. “We’ll have a display in the windows that tells the story of the building’s past and future.”

Meanwhile, the Norman I. Krug family, who owns the Sonoma Valley Inn and Dry Creek Inn, located in California, is offering a $7,500 matching grant, with a deadline of May 1 for the matching funds. If raised, the $15,000 in grant money would help fund the furnishings that will enable the Reher Center to open the gallery and bakery to the public this summer.

“Hopefully we’ll show people what kind of a place this can be and the types of things we can offer, and get feedback on how best we can serve the community,” said Litvin. “We also need financial support. We want to offer something meaningful to the community based on the legacy of what happened in this space.”

The funding from this match will help Litvin to prepare and open the bakery and retail shop for a series of “hard-hat” tours this June and July. These small group experiences will invite targeted groups of community stakeholders to see the space and share their feedback on the Reher Center’s vision of the site’s redevelopment and plans for programming. “We want to bring in a wide variety of people to invite them into the process of creating this vital community resource,” Litvin said. She will conduct the tours, during which visitors will also sample immigrant cuisine from Graziano’s Downtown Café.

Prior to those events, on the afternoon of June 3 the Reher Center will host the sixth annual Kingston Multicultural Festival, held at Gallo Park, which will feature live ethnic music and dance, multicultural handicrafts, children’s activities, and a variety of food and drink.

Food is a big part of the site’s history, and the Reher Center’s social media program will be focused this summer “on immigrant food entrepreneurs — people who get their leg up through food, which is an extremely important story of immigrants now,” Litvin said. Figuring out the culinary piece that the Reher Center will offer on-site is “key — that would make the most sense in terms of using the bakery’s legacy to hook people.”

Miller, who now also serves as the Ulster County historian, is focused on raising funds for the remainder of the building that still needs work. He noted that while the building stabilization is “95 percent done,” the retail side needs a new roof, all the windows need restoration, and some of the masonry needs to be repointed.

Big challenges are still ahead, but slowly the Reher Center is evolving as a fascinating portal to the history of the multi-ethnic and multi-racial community that once thrived in Kingston’s waterfront district of Rondout.

“We’ve reached a lot of clarity in the last year,” concluded Litvin. “I’m proud we have an idea about the retail shop that’s compelling and consistent with the vision. My dream was to have a community-curated exhibit bringing kids into the building, and that will be a goal for next year. If it’s possible to get the smell of freshly baked bread in the oven room — well, perhaps an angel will come through this summer.”

To donate to the $7,500 the Reher Center needs to raise to receive $7,500 of a matching grant by May 1, for a total of $15,000, visit www.rehercenter.org/reher-match/

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