Susan Brustmann: Director keeps saving Poppenhusen Institute

By Madina Toure

When Susan Brustmann first became executive director of the Poppenhusen Institute in College Point in 1983 after saving the institute from demolition, she was a novice. She had no staff, no salary and no experience.

But she persevered, networking with other nonprofits.

“I think it was exciting,” Brustmann said. “I think it was rewarding to know that when you fight for something, things can actually materialize.”

Thirty-two years later, the institute — which now serves College Point as a community cultural center with a variety of programs — has financial problems, but is still around.

“If I didn’t have a faith in God, I would have walked away,” she said.

The institute, a city landmark, was built in 1868 with funds donated by Conrad Poppenhusen, the benefactor of College Point. In 1870, the German-American entrepreneur founded the nation’s first free kindergarten at the institute.

The institute offers programs such as karate, guitar lessons, piano lessons, lectures, stress workshops, school and public tours, hall and garden rentals, historic exhibits and summer concerts.

Brustmann studied child care mental health at LaGuardia Community College but left halfway through in 1980 to tend to the institute. Due to financial hardship, the board of directors at the time considered demolishing the building.

Brustmann and her friend, Ellen Stevenson, formed an ad hoc committee. The New York City Charities Bureau, which oversaw nonprofits and a volunteer lawyer, took up the case, which was brought to State Supreme Court in Jamaica to prevent the institute’s sale and demolition. In late 1983, they won with assistance from James Trent, director of the Queens County Farm Museum and the institute’s president, and the Queens Historical Society.

“This building was meant to be for the general public and for all people,” she said.

Brustmann received help from area companies, the Verizon Pioneers, Faye Graham, her assistant, vendors and numerous volunteers.

“I’ve never been alone in my efforts here,” she said.

In 2008, member items for nonprofits across the state were deleted, creating a huge hole for the institute, whose operating budget is $250,000 year. It is surviving on $150,000. Fundraisers such as OktoberFest, a Haunted House and Taste of College Point have helped the institute as have elected officials.

But a number of projects have come to fruition, including a new roof, the restoration of the Grand Hall and the first free kindergarten room, a fire alarm system, the paving of the parking lot, the restoration of the original wooden floors and the installation of new wooden floors. An elevator installation and an exterior restoration are in the works. All projects were funded by lawmakers.

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) also granted $100,000 from the recently-adopted state budget to the institute.

“I really feel honored to be in this position,” she said. “It’s been a blessing.”

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