It was a rare survivor of the devastation that leveled much of Kingston’s downtown Rondout district in a 1960s urban renewal project: Hyman Reher’s bakery, two side-by-side late 19th century brick buildings located at the corner of Spring and Broadway. Long after Hymie had fired up the oven for the last time, the retail shop, bakery, and upstairs apartments preserved the life of a family business from decades past, down to the cavernous 1916 oven and wire stand of faded newspapers. In 2004, shortly before his death, Hymie deeded the buildings to the Jewish Federation of Ulster County. The federation raised the money to begin stabilizing the deteriorating buildings, a long and costly project, as the first step in launching the Reher Center of Immigrant Culture and History. Transforming those dusty artifacts and historic but worn buildings into a living history museum has been a formidable task, but after nearly two decades, the Reher Center has become a vibrant presence in downtown Kingston, with weekend guided tours of the retail shop (through the end of this month, before closing for the winter), a comprehensive exhibition on the history of sewing in Kingston housed in an elegant, well-lit upstairs gallery, and an active program of events (including, on November 12,both a hands-on sewing workshop and moderated book discussion about growing up in an immigrant family business with Alvin Eng, followed by a documentary film screening on November 14). After hiring Sarah Litvin, whose consulting work had proved invaluable, as the full-time executive director in 2019, the Center was incorporated as a New York State museum in 2020 and the following year, received its 501-c3 nonprofit status.
Now another milestone has been reached: the purchaseof the two buildings from the Jewish Federation. Thanks to the generosity of three donors — Jeffrey Farber, Rondavid and Carol Super Gold, and Floyd Lattin and Ward Mintz — along with the pro bono services of attorney Stuart Lipkind,the $87,000 purchase price, representing approximately half of what the Federation has invested in the building, the property is debt free.
The transaction might seem like a mere technicality, but it is significant, enabling the Center to wholeheartedly commit to its mission. “Initially it was about the Jewish community, but since then the story the center tells is so much bigger,” said Litvin. “We’ve distilled these themes of community, work, bread, and culture, which give us an entry point into everyone’s story.” As such, “we’ve been able to attract new leadership to the board that reflects our mission and ways in which we have developed as an institution.” Of the five members of the board who joined in the last two years, four are immigrants themselves, she noted.
Indeed, the Center’s mission to address immigrant culture at large spoke to donor and board member Carol Super Gold. “My parents were Jewish immigrants who escaped from Germany and faced incredible hardships when they came to the U.S.,” she said. “They couldn’t speak English and were not well-educated people, but they learned and worked very hard to give me a good life here in the Hudson Valley.” A resident of Woodstock and retired history teacher, SuperGold said the Reher Center appealed to her because it “celebrates the contributions of every ethnicity and educates our present generation about the importance of each group, what they endured and accomplished. As a teacher I like to make things interesting to students, and the Reher Center is doing that, for example by recording oral histories of immigrants.”
Super Goldinvited her dermatologist, the son of Filipino immigrants, to a special tour of the Center, who afterwards told her that the story of the Rehers “is my story” and subsequently joined the board. “Especially during this time of stark divisiveness, the Reher Center is a beacon. Whenever I get upset [by the political situation] I am grateful to be part of an organization that helps young people be proud of their heritage and understand America as a land of immigrants.”
Communicating the Reher story in a riveting way, through the retail store, bakery, and their upstairs apartment, is a pivotal jumping off point.“We are the premiere center of immigrant culture and history in the Hudson Valley, and it all comes downto these buildings and the neighborhood and history of the family,” said Litvin. “To own and preserve it is really crucial.”
Besides designing programming that engages the community, much of the center’s focus is thus on the structure itself. It recently completed an historic structures report funded by a grant from thePreservation League of New York, which shows the full build-out, including the construction of a test kitchen in the former coal bin and a new addition in the courtyard housing an elevator, lobby, and two bathrooms. Key to the build-out is making the second and third floors of the corner building, which housed the Reher family’s apartment as well as an upstairs tenant, accessible to the public.
Litvin is hopeful the Center will receive a $500,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation it has applied for which would fund repair of the leaking roof and seal the envelope of the building, including windows, masonry walls, decking and other components ensuring proper drainage. (The grant required a three to one match, which has been obtained from an anonymous donor.) The grant “would be transformative,” enabling staff to begin addressing the issues of peeling lead paint, mold, asbestos and other remediable work on the top floors as well as stabilizing the stairs and installation of sprinklers, said Litvin.
The plan is to restore the Reher family apartment “so visitors can see what it was like when the family lived there, overlaid with the story of immigration to the Hudson Valley,” she noted. An example might be “picking up a reproduction of Elsie’s handheld Bakelite mirror and hearing the voice of a contemporary Mexican girl talking about her quinceañera.” The Center is currently working with the Ulster Literacy Association to collect such immigrant stories, which will utilize audio and projection technologies in a permanent exhibition. The plan for the third floor is to include a historic apartment dating from the early 20th century, whose tenant would have worked on the waterfront; this would touch on the history of the Irish and German immigrants in Rondout. The upper floor would include space available for short-term rentals, a key component of the Center’s fiscal sustainability.
Litvinand her staff are currently conducting an inventory of all the objects the family left behind and in the winter will adopt a “collection plans policy,” deciding what to preserve. While the tours of the bakery have been popular, Litvinhopeseventually to createan option for aself-guided tour, utilizing technology and more interpretative exhibits, which would take advantage of the neighborhood’s attraction to tourists. As it is, the bakery is “bare bones. We need lighting and an entire upgrade to the electrical system, which would enable the bakery to be heated” as well as featureactivities associated with a working bakery, she said.
The Center is partnering with Ulster BOCES and the Culinary Institute of America to design the test kitchen programming. The Culinary’s class in Applied Food Studies is also working on the Center’s upcoming exhibition on food cultures. “We’ve conducted a range of interviews of people from Ukraine to Japan to Gambia to El Salvador and will be coordinating food stories with the class, to flesh out the culinary details,” Litvin said. The Reher is also partnering with the neighborhood restaurant and café Rosie General, which this year is donatingthe rolls put in the bags visitors receive at the end of the bakery tour.
With just herself and one other full-time employee, plus several part-time consultants, the task moving forward may seem at times overwhelming. “Itall has to be seen as incremental steps,” Litvin said. “The purchase of the buildings caps an exciting phase of our growth, and we’re already sprinting forward into the next phase”—and toward realizing the five-year vision of being “a vibrant, year-round attraction, offering unique experiences that engage and connect diverse audiences from near and far” that instills in visitors an “enhanced empathy for immigrants, admiration for our multicultural society, and motivation to engage in communal and civic life,” to quote from the Center’s mission statement.
“I’m in awe of what we’ve accomplished the last three years since we brought Sarah and her team on,” said Barbara Blas, president of the Reher Center board. Blas and her husband were close friends of Hymie Reher, cared for him in his last years, andhelped arrange his transfer of the bakery to the Jewish Federation. Along with historian Geoffrey Miller, they worked with Hymie to forge the vision of a museum. “It’s very fulfilling, and [its development is] faster that I can blink,” Blas concluded.