Save Historic Hildebrandt's Restaurant on Long Island
Save Historic Hildebrandt's Restaurant on Long Island
On August 3, 2020, Hildebrandt's Restaurant in Williston Park on Long Island announced that they would be closing after their landlord sold the building. The new owners plan a new unspecified use which will mean completely redoing the interior and exterior. Regardless of what their intentions are, it means a potential loss of this quintessential piece of Long Island Americana. After 95 years of continuous operation in the original location, the restaurant has been a mainstay of the north shore's cultural heritage and a major draw for tourism from throughout New York.
Hildebrandt's opened in 1927 at 84 Hillside Avenue as an ice cream parlor and luncheonette back when Hillside Avenue was just a dirt road without any street lights. It was the first building to be constructed on the Williston Park portion of the thoroughfare which was once surrounded largely by farmland. Although the chain of ownership is not totally clear, records show that it was possibly founded by possibly Henry or Fritz Hildebrandt. The business has nonetheless only had four owners since opening: It was sold to Alma Steffens in the 1950's. It was then purchased in 1974 by Helen Baum who sold it a year later to Alfred and Joanne Strano. Hildebrandt's has remained in the Strano family ever since.
The restaurant was built as part of a commercial block of American Craftsman style storefronts with plate glass windows and colorful awnings that draped over the sidewalk. In the 1950's, the façade was reclad in pigmented structural glass known as Vitrolite which was a staple of the Streamline Moderne style of architecture. It is regarded as one of two remaining examples of the glass on all of Long Island, the other being in Huntington at the Northport Sweet Shop. Along with the new exterior, a splendid neon sign was added to showcase their specialties of soda, candies and ice cream alongside the Hildebrandt name in an elegant script typeface. It joined a row of bygone stores like O'Connor's Furniture, Village Bakery, and Reilly's Shoes.
Known for homemade ice cream and chocolates, confectioner Henry Schriever prepared them in the basement each day until retiring in 1974. Before retiring, however, he trained Alfred Strano how to prepare sweets by hand using family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Into the late 1990's and 2000's, the restaurant's 1946 Ford truck continued to putter around the neighborhood. The Strano family has been a careful custodian of those treasured traditions. Employees like Thomas Bauman have remained with the family for over 35 years as a manager, ensuring that continuity of quality. After Susan Strano Acosta passed away in June of 2015, Bryan Acosta and his family have continued on as the current generation of owners.
Considering that the new owners will be completely redoing the building, there is a very high chance that both the Hildebrandt's business and the historic structure will be lost forever. Despite being next to the East Williston Village Historic District, the building itself was never evaluated or listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also not landmarked locally with the Village of Williston Park which would have provided protection from any inappropriate exterior alterations. Lacking an active historian for the Town of North Hempstead for two years, it is up to the community to be that critical advocate for preservation. Ideally, it would also be essential that the site be documented and any ephemera be donated to an archival repository where it can be retained for posterity.
As an anchor to East Williston's large business district, Hildebrandt's is a vital part of the neighborhood beyond just its capacity as a restaurant. The interior retains its soda fountain, phonebooth, original displays, and most other fixtures which make it especially appealing to film productions. It has frequently been sought out as a shooting location, recently hosting "The Book of Henry" (2017), "The Irishman" (2019), "One Fine Sundae" (2019) and the web series "Nightwing: Escalation" which generated tens of thousands of dollars for the local economy in just the few days of shooting alone. It would be especially appealing as a location for period dramas like Amazon Video's "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" which takes place in the late 1950's. This could be an opportunity to create jobs related to filming on location and put East Williston on the national radar as a point of interest for people to live. Preservation would be good for the vitality of the community and very good for the local economy.
While Hildebrandt's has changed ownership over the years, the atmosphere has remained the same which seems to warp the very sense of time, allowing visitors to be drawn into the past. It is one of a small handful of institutions remaining in the New York City area that have retained their true character. When most restaurants close in the first few years of operation, this one has remained in business for over 90 years. That is something to be incredibly proud of! Rather than be sold piecemeal for architectural salvage, the restaurant should remain intact for future generations to enjoy under similar or new ownership, ideally continuing as a luncheon style or even as a new format which retains the architectural design as it is. Such irreplaceable places deserve only the utmost thought and care when making future decisions. Instead of carelessly losing one of Long Island's great icons, we should cherish and protect this fragile small business.
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