Einstein Square at former Rothman’s Department Store unveiled

08/06/2019 6:00 AM |

A new community hub was dedicated to theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, who 80 years ago spent “his happiest summer ever” in Southold.

The original Rothman’s Department Store building on Main Road in Southold has been completely restored and will now be known as Einstein Square.

Keeping its history and character intact was vital to co-owners Jonathan Tibett and Glenn Heidtmann Jr., who both reside in Southold.

“The historical value is what we grabbed onto initially,” Mr. Tibett explained during a recent walk-through of the site. “And the opportunity to create a square,” he said, which they hope will foster pedestrian traffic and create a community meeting place.

Standing in the granite square, which features green space, plentiful seating areas, and USB device-charging stations, Mr. Tibett described their goals for the property.

“We tried to set this up as a very hospitable zone, so people can sit, socialize, charge their cellphones. We wanted to put as much green space back as possible,” he said.

Mr. Heidtmann hopes the outdoor space will appeal to and be used by locals and visitors alike. “We want everyone in the community to feel welcome,” he said.

The renovated building features a ground-floor 2,300-square-foot retail space, for which the owners are seeking a tenant.

“What we’re looking for is some kind of gourmet market,” Mr. Tibett said, envisioning local vendors setting up kiosks in a “Chelsea Market-esque” setup.

They will also seek tenants for two residences on site: a three-bedroom, two-bath loft apartment above the retail space that was once home to a Bell Telephone Co. office, and the restored four-bedroom, two-bath home the Rothman family once lived in.

“We didn’t want to change a single detail,” Mr. Tibett said, pointing out that the original front door will bevisible from the retail component and historic features have been preserved, though some modern updates were made to the kitchen and infrastructure.

Mr. Heidtmann, a fourth-generation contractor, led the project, which was described as a “monumental” undertaking.

“The foundation was failing, it was caving in,” he said.

Crews worked for at least six months to raise the entire structure and excavate beneath it in order to install steel reinforcements and create a basement.

They broke ground on the project in June 2018.

According to Mr. Heidtmann, while excavating, crews found artifacts including antique ginger ale and medicine bottles and sales receipts that show transactions between the Rothmans and Mullen Motors, which will be donated to Southold Historical Society.

Mr. Heidtmann recalled visiting Rothman’s Department Store as a child to buy Matchbox cars. Photos of David Rothman and Albert Einstein together always piqued his interest in the local legend, who summered in Cutchogue and became friends with Mr. Rothman.

“We’ve all known about it, but this opportunity to restore [the building] and memorialize their friendship, we couldn’t resist,” he said.

As the story goes, Mr. Einstein once wandered into the store looking for sandals during one of his stays on the North Fork. His German accent was thick, making it sound like he was asking for a “sundial.”

From there, a friendship between the two men blossomed; they frequently played the violin together at the Rothmans’ home.

The store was later taken over by Bob Rothman, and eventually by his son Ron, who has run it for over 30 years. Rothman’s celebrates 100 years in business this year.

Both Mr. Tibett and Mr. Heidtmann credit Ron Rothman as the “biggest supporter” of their project.

“It’s wonderful what they’ve done,” Mr. Rothman said Monday. “It’s basically a testament to my grandfather, and preserves [the property] for the next 100 years.”

Mr. Heidtmann referenced the Southold Town Comprehensive Plan, noting that this project aligns with many of the goals set forth in the 12 chapters. “We preserved and revitalized what was here,” he said. “It’s not just about us. We want to boost the other merchants.”

The date of the unveiling coincided with the 80th anniversary of the letter Mr. Einstein wrote from Nassau Point to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, eventually leading to the establishment of the Manhattan Project and shifting the course of history.

A sculpture created by Marco DiLuca and a colorful 8-by-8-foot mural by Michael H. Fusco that pays homage to Mr. Einstein’s summer in Southold will be unveiled during the ceremony.

Southold Historical Society will also make a presentation. Executive director Deanna Witte-Walker said they were “thrilled” to see the site preserved. “We have been watching with great satisfaction knowing both this building and this special relationship between Albert Einstein and David Rothman will be celebrated for years to come,” she said.

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