Most Nassau County residents, and likely many New York City residents, know of Hildebrandt’s, a classic 1920s soda shop known for ice cream and diner fare. But the last few years for the historic spot have been tough. The restaurant announced it would close in 2020, then in 2021 stated it would remain open for just a few more months. Hildebrandt’s is still serving up some of the same dishes it served nearly a century ago, and the community — and the nation — is rallying behind the restaurant to keep it open.
As the restaurant’s 100th anniversary approaches, Hildebrandt’s landlord may bump up the rent from $4,500 to $6,700, looking to turn the space into a cafe or an ice cream chain location. While Williston Park locals want Hildebrandt’s to stay, though, there is little action locally, according to Mike Carsten, a member of the board of directors for the Society for Commercial Archeology. Carsten is one of two board members located in the nearby area and has helped get the word out about preservation efforts. He mentioned that most of the support actually comes from New York City and other parts of the country, not necessarily in Hildebrandt’s own backyard. Petitions have been signed, and hundreds have posted on social media, but Carsten noted how there is little real action besides calls and letters to the mayor asking for the restaurant to be declared a historic site.
“I don’t think that people locally are going to be active about it and really going to fight,” Carsten told Untapped New York. “If there is a public hearing, it sounds like there might be, are people going to show up to that? Are there going to be 200 people there like the one for Penn Station a couple of weeks ago? I don’t know if you’re going to get that. I think on a national level, people really want them to stay, and that’s great. But nationally, you don’t have that pull. It’s not going to be a national historic landmark. It’s tough getting it landmarked because the landlord doesn’t want that.”
Opened in 1927 at 84 Hillside Avenue, Hildebrandt’s started out as an ice cream parlor and luncheonette. At the time, Hillside Avenue was merely a dirt road, and it was the first building to be constructed on the Williston Park portion of the avenue, according to a petition to save the building, which has been signed by nearly 16,000 people. The restaurant was likely founded by Henry or Fritz Hildebrandt, and it was sold to Alma Steffens in the 1950s. Helen Baum then purchased it in 1975, before selling it a year later to Alfred and Joanne Strano. It has stayed within the family up to today.
Reminiscent of American Craftsman-style storefronts, Hildebrandt’s featured plate glass windows and colorful awnings. In the 1950s, the façade was recladded in Vitrolite, a staple of Streamline Moderne architecture. Along with Northport Sweet Shop in Huntington, Hildebrandt’s is considered one of just two remaining Long Island locations that use this pigmented glass. A neon sign was also added to showcase soda, candies, and ice cream alongside the restaurant name.
“Architecturally, it’s a place worth saving, and inside, it hasn’t changed since the 1950s. It’s really the last thing in the area that’s what it used to be,” Carsten said. “Everyone’s been there, everyone went there, they have memories, it’s nostalgic. And it’s a ‘landmark,’ so it needs to stay. It needs to be a real landmark so that it can stay.”
As Carsten wrote in a letter to Williston Park’s mayor advocating for the preservation of the building, “Hildebrandt’s is a rare resource of America’s history. There are not many luncheonettes around in this country that still exist, that have not changed in over half a century. It is a place that locals of Williston Park and people from outside visit for the nostalgia, the memories, the familiarity, and the experience you get from Hildebrandt’s.”
Though many hope that the building will receive landmark status, there is a “very high chance” that the building will be lost forever, according to the petition. Although it is next to the East Williston Village Historic District, the building was never listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also not landmarked locally with the village, leaving it vulnerable to exterior alterations. Some who advocate for landmarking the property have cited how the building was used as a shooting location for The Book of Henry (2017), The Irishman (2019), and One Fine Sundae (2019). The building in which Hildebrandt’s is housed was sold on August 26, 2020, for $379,000. Williston Park Mayor Paul Ehrbar has stated that a public hearing must take place before the board decides on landmark status.
If landmarking does not work and the building is lost, the worst-case scenario would be for the sign or entire facade to be preserved in the American Sign Museum, where similar historic restaurant signs have been sent. The sign would be restored and displayed in Cincinnati. Though, not all hope is lost for landmarking.
“What I heard is that the landlord owns the facade and the sign, and the restaurant owns the inside,” Carsten said. “And they’re saying, we’ll sell everything if we close. But if the landlord owns the sign and facade that’s a scary situation, obviously, because we’ve seen buildings, especially diners, literally get demolished overnight. Museums, that’s always a last resort for preservation of signs, buildings, any resource.”
Though the future of the restaurant is uncertain, many in the community hope to preserve the spot as it has always been, serving milkshakes and sundaes to younger generations just as they did to their parents and grandparents.
According to a Facebook post by Hildebrandt’s, “As you all know, we are just shy of our 100th birthday- (just like our beloved Betty White). We want to save ‘Hildebrandts’ (the name) before it’s too late. Even if our current ownership has to release their control, we would like to keep the sign and store open to the public so future generations can enjoy the purity of our store. For years, school children have enjoyed learning of our history through field trips and Girl Scout outings. Whether you grew up playing baseball/softball with a Hildebrandts jersey on, or simply came here as a kid to enjoy a sundae, this place represents all that is Williston Park. The Irishman, The Book of Henry, and a bunch of small independent films brought excitement to our little town. Let’s be sure that future generations see that beautiful sign.”
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