Written by Dagmar Fors Karppi Friday, 24 February 2012 00:00
Nearly four years to the day since he first arrived on March 1, Isaac D. Kremer announced that he will be leaving the Oyster Bay Main Street Association where he served as executive director to assume a new role with the leading historic preservation organization in Austin, Texas. He will be the preservation program manager for the Heritage Society of Austin.
Mr. Kremer said he saw the posting for the position and went through the interview process. “When I was at the MSA annual meeting on Jan. 26, I thought it might be my swan song. I didn’t have the final notice but I sensed it might be coming. I was just really pleased and happy to have been selected as the candidate.”
His new position is as the Preservation Program Manager for the for Heritage Society of Austin. “Austin is the capital of Texas, and the University of Texas is located there. There is a big neighborhood, South Congress with all the eccentric restaurants and shops – it’s a good change of pace. I’ve been south before. They don’t call it the south or the west. I have to find out what they say,” he added.“The furthest south I got was on the western edge of Louisiana, in DeRitter, ten miles out of Texas. That was seven years ago, after Hurricane Katrina. I’ve been here four years on March 1, and will be leaving on Feb. 24, 2012.
“Oyster Bay gave me the best opportunity. They selected me for the job and got out of the way and let me do it. I’m really satisfied on what I have been able to accomplish,” said Mr. Kremer.
Mr. Kremer arrived in Oyster Bay after the MSA had been pushing for two major projects, a carousel in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park; and a Theodore Roosevelt Museum, which failed for economic reasons as well as for lack of an appropriate location. Mr. Kremer arrived to find the Octagon Hotel in threat of demolition for development and worked with the owners to a happy conclusion. That included an appearance before the Oyster Bay Sewer District to petition the site being granted a variance to allow six apartments and retail businesses to be located there, with more occupancy than the current regulations permit, by grandfathering it in since it was originally a hotel. Presently the building is fully rented.
“One of my most vivid memories I’ll take with me is when we had a high stakes meeting with the town on the Octagon preservation with the developer and the architect and Commissioner of Planning and Development Fredrich Ipolitto who made it clear that anything short of preservation was not acceptable. We spent a lot of our money on that project. Standing outside of Town Hall with Tom Kuehhas [then Oyster Bay Historical Society executive director], Kathy Prinz [co-founder of Save the Jewel by the Bay] and myself, I asked Tom, ‘How do you feel?’ and he said, ‘I’m shocked. This is the first time we have ever been successful for preservation.’ That was back in July 2009, and that will always be vivid to me of how ecstatic Tom was that we broke through on this project.
“I will also remember Ellen (Roché, MSA board president) and I talked about it. She said, ‘If we follow through on this, it will be huge.’ She was one of my biggest supporters along with Kathy Prinz. They were the inner core and the nucleus to help me get the project through and to keep focused. It wouldn’t have been possible without the two of them.
“It was a good project and hopefully a lot will follow. It will always be my first big win in preservation.”
When the Octagon Hotel was in danger four years ago, Mr. Kremer gathered people interested in preservation, open space and the history of the area in the Oyster Bay Preservation Roundtable, which championed for the hotel and later for Hillside, the Trousdell House. Mr. Kremer said, “I’m hopeful that more preservation projects will go through, like Hillside.”
“These past four years have provided a remarkable opportunity for personal and professional growth,” Mr. Kremer said. “The Main Street Association is now more focused on the historic preservation aspect of their mission than at any time ever before, and they now have the resources to carry out that mission.” He added, “Now we are a preservation organization. When I came here, MSA was not a preservation organization. They were seeking focus, and I was more than happy to be the guy to help that. While we [in the community] were having a civic dialog on the [proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential] museum, quietly many others of us were working on the Octagon project [Theodore Roosevelt ran his campaign for Governor from this building and was a frequent guest] and we quietly got that done and it was a project that brought millions of dollars in investment in the downtown area. The Octagon was the turning point for a lot of other good things in Oyster Bay.”
He added, “Oyster Bay’s destiny is preservation. We have opened some eyes to seeing that in Oyster Bay, historic preservation is Oyster Bay’s future. That has been the most rewarding thing.”
Close to another dozen projects followed, resulting in creation of new residential and commercial units in the downtown area.
Several major state and federal grants were secured. This included $700,000 through the New York Main Street Grant program; and another $70,000 from the Federal Preserve America program. When private and philanthropic gifts for projects such as the Octagon Hotel and a new interpretive and way-finding signage program are added, the amount raised in support of historic preservation and heritage tourism in Oyster Bay during Kremer’s tenure topped out at nearly $1 million.
Meredith Maus, who interned with MSA, is now on staff as the new project manager. She is currently working on their Preserve America grant for way-finding signs. “We have two years to administer the Main Street grant. It will be her primary focus as the group begins a national search to find a new executive director, someone with a preservation background and who understands the Main Street approach but also has a sensitivity for Oyster Bay,” said Mr. Kremer.
Oyster Bay is a unique part of the world. He said, “Here, civic improvement rises to the level of sport and art form.”
Partnerships Make for Success
Partnerships were an important key to success. Projects with Sagamore Hill National Historic Site helped to highlight the many buildings with Theodore Roosevelt ties in the downtown. Oyster Bay was a founding member of the Gold Coast Mansions Historic Long Island Alliance to market and promote historic sites on Long Island. At the federal level, Mr. Kremer participated in advocacy efforts for historic preservation through membership in Preservation Action and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Center. He was also a member of the Rotary Club of Oyster Bay serving as Community Service Chair and President Elect (which is the training position before becoming president).
The Main Street Association membership has undergone a remarkable transformation and growth over the past four years. The level of member giving reached the highest level in the history of the organization in fiscal year 2011, following upon four consecutive years of growth.
“What this shows is that the level of support for the Main Street organization mission among our members is the strongest it has ever been,” said John Bonifacio, Oyster Bay Main Street Association President. “This is a tribute to Isaac and his tenacity to lift up downtown Oyster Bay, by reaffirming our commitment to historic preservation.”
The success in Oyster Bay is not measured merely by renovated buildings. Several new initiatives started while Isaac was in Oyster Bay include the Oyster Bay Farmers’ Market, the Sundown Concert Series, Dancing in the Street, and many others. Individually and collectively these helped to attract people downtown once again.
This is a pattern that will hopefully continue moving forward, he said. There are several large-scale projects such as restoration of the Hillside mansion (formerly the Trousdell House on East Main Street), as well as restoration of the Snouder’s Drug Store, and the Oyster Bay Long Island Railroad Station that will continue. By conservative estimates, close to $10 million in active or pending projects are underway that add to the over $30 million of investment made over the past decade in the hamlet.
“None of our success in Oyster Bay would have been possible without the support of the Oyster Bay Community Foundation, the Bahnik Foundation, and, most importantly, the time, passion, energy, and commitment of our board of directors and members,” Mr. Kremer said. He added that on a personal level, “Oyster Bay gave me the greatest possible gift – I met my wife here and we have two beautiful sons. This is the legacy that I will forever be proudest of.”
Despite leaving, Mr. Kremer will seek to maintain a connection with Oyster Bay by continuing to advocate for support of revitalization of downtown areas across Long Island. Further, he will maintain his ties with the Underhill Burying Ground in Lattingtown, where Captain John Underhill was buried in 1672. Underhill helped to settle Oyster Bay in the 1650s, and Mr. Kremer married his wife, Christine Albanese, in Oyster Bay 350 years after Captain John Underhill married his wife in the same place.
Mr. Kremer hopes to come back a couple of times a year and to keep track of continued change and improvement in Oyster Bay. “Nothing would please me more than being able to stay at a bed and breakfast in a beautifully restored historic building near the downtown, and see Oyster Bay fully realize its potential to become one of the leading and most highly regarded small towns in America. The home town of Theodore Roosevelt deserves nothing less,” Mr. Kremer said.
He said, “Make a B&B and then I’ll come back. You have to plant seeds, that’s what preservation is all about. Preservation is not a one-time thing. Once you start it you’ll always be doing it.”
Luckily, as he pointed out at the MSA annual meeting, the residential area of the community itself is preservation-minded by the care they put into maintaining their historic houses. Additionally, he added, “The most successful businesses and most successful merchants are the ones that respect the traditions of Oyster Bay and have attractive looking store fronts.”
The TR Museum Concept
“One last thing,” said Mr. Kremer, “Every president since Hoover has a presidential library. There have been a lot of good presidents, but I believe the future of Oyster Bay has to include something of the scale that TR deserves - that monument.”
He said, “I came 700 miles to build a museum and instead helped re-build a whole community, which is equally gratifying but Roosevelt needs and deserves a presidential library. He needs a pilgrimage site for people to honor him.”
When reminded that there is Sagamore Hill; Youngs Cemetery; the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum; and the Oyster Bay Historical Society’s Koenig Research and Collections Center; Snouder’s Corner Drugstore; as well as Oyster Bay becoming a new kind of museum, a living museum, where Sagamore Hill Park Rangers now give tours, Mr. Kremer said, “These are the streets he walked on and the places his neighbors lived and he is here through flesh and bone; through sticks and stone.”
He said that TR will follow him wherever he goes. He said, “You take every place you’ve been to every place you go. Oyster Bay will always be a part of me. This is my home and my homeport and one that I hope to come back to – continuously. Not as a threat but as a promise.”
Mr. Kremer was also very positive about John Bonifacio, the MSA president. He said, “John is the most dedicated and determined volunteer I have ever met in preservation. It’s in his DNA. He’s the best we’ve ever had.”
It was interesting that at the MSA meeting Mr. Bonifacio spoke with such great love for his Oyster Bay home and his Oyster Bay district, saying he lives in Adams Park.
Mr. Kremer said, “Meredith Maus is executing the signs for the Adams Park area - and every neighborhood in Oyster Bay that has a name. We just need to discover them. They had a name for the waterfront, it was called The Battery; to the east was Florence Park; the area around St. Dominic’s was called The Bronx. Adams Park is the area between Mariner’s Walk and Lexington Avenue; and the Roosevelt School area that was called The West End. There were five neighborhoods and the downtown area of historic Oyster Bay,” he said.
During his tenure, Mr. Kremer has compiled a file of all the historic houses in Oyster Bay and their histories. Some of that was seen at the MSA annual meeting, as they revealed plans to increase the historic signage in the hamlet; and restore facades.
Mr. Kremer said he plans to take a month off before settling in Austin, Texas, and has an historic trip in mind. “I will lobby Congress; and go to where we had our honeymoon at the Homestead in Hot Spring, Virginia. I will visit the hot spring pool that Thomas Jefferson soaked in and then visit Monticello; then on to Knoxville, where I have family, and then to Texas.”
Mr. Kremer is a man with a plan, a love of history and preservation and Oyster Bay is richer for having been part of his life plan.
In lieu of any gifts, Mr. Kremer has asked that financial contributions be made, in his name, to the Oyster Bay Main Street Association, P.O. Box 116, Oyster Bay, NY 11771.