The Bohemian National Hall: NYC’s “focal point of everything Czech”, in the early 20th century and today

Bohemian National Hall, photo: Marián Beneš / Czech Centre in New York

New York’s Bohemian National Hall brings together the most important Czech institutions in the city. The Czech Center, Consulate General and other organisations share the magnificent five-storey preserved building, which representatives of other mid-sized states must envy greatly.

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: Marián Beneš / Czech Centre in New York
Built in the late 19th century, the Bohemian National Hall was initially a social and cultural centre for the then enormous Czech community on the Upper East Side.

The building fell into disrepair in the latter half of the last century and in 2001 was sold to the Czech state by its operators, the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, for a single dollar.

Its present-day splendour is the result of a thorough renovation funded by the Czech government, the spiralling costs of which drew some complaints at home.

The latter part of the impressive renovation was overseen by Prague-born property developer Joseph Balaz, head of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.

We spoke at the Bohemian National Hall’s Skybox, a conference room adjacent to the building’s wonderful ballroom.

“Let’s say 130 years ago in the neighbourhood here there were maybe 50,000 ethnic Czechs and Slovaks, essentially Austro-Hungarians.

“And there were around 80 individual groups. Those groups got together and created this umbrella organisation with the poetic name Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association – and got together and collected money and built this building.

“It shows you that they were really active. It’s wonderful.

“That’s why we have the sign here [above the stage in the ballroom] národ sobě [the nation for itself], basically exactly the same thing that we have in the National Theatre in Prague.

“When they decided to gift the building to the Czech government for a symbolic USD 1 it was a great, great decision.”

“I can imagine that the building was the focal point of everything Czech and later on Czechoslovak, etcetera.

“We actually also found out, through our friendly history buffs and scholars, that probably the building and its foundation played a very important role in the actual creation of Czechoslovakia.

“Because the community was very strong and the building was the centrepiece of it.

“And when the community was trying to persuade Woodrow Wilson, at the time the president of the US, to support the creation of Czechoslovakia, I can only imagine that it was a very important part of that.”

Before today, when would have been the heyday, the golden period, of the Bohemian National Hall?

“I would say it probably must have been after it was built. Then obviously between the wars and I would even say after the war.

“Then when the community started moving out and being more Amercianised, etcetera, I can also understand that there was a time when people were not that interested or didn’t have time to participate in things.

Joseph Balaz on the roof of the BNH,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Then maybe the building was a bit too big for the community and it started falling apart.

“My predecessor [as head of the BBLA], Professor Jan [Hird] Pokorný, was an architect at Columbia University and one of the co-founders of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“He and the rest of the trustees decided not to sell the building and from what I’ve seen in the documents from that time the valuation of the real estate was roughly USD 36 or 37 million.

“When they decided to gift the building to the Czech government for a symbolic USD 1 it was a great, great decision.

“The consul general here was Mr. [Petr] Gandalovič and he was on the other side of the negotiating table.

“I’m thankful to these people who made that decision and made that transaction.”

As you know, some people in the Czech Republic complained that the renovation was too expensive. What do you say to that?

“I actually was introduced to the building in the second phase of the renovation and what I understand, what I recall, is that initially there were different ideas for the renovation.

“What’s unique in New York City is a restored historical facility.”

“At some point, someone from Prague suggested that perhaps the big ballroom should have exposed brick walls and a concrete floor. The exposed brick walls would be hip and modern.

“Later on people realised that exposed brick walls are nothing special in New York City, that every other gallery has had them since the 1950s [laughs].

“On the contrary, what’s unique in New York City is a restored historical facility, so now what I call it is the equivalent of the European palazzo.

“The value of the building is tremendous. And I do not mean just the value of the real estate and the way it was beautifully built – but it plays a very important in the geo-political kind of thing that the Czech government is doing here.

“As an example, when the Czech ambassadors to the UN or the consuls general invite their counterparts here, suddenly the Czech Republic is taken very seriously because they have such a place to show off.”

How much of the building was totally renovated and how much was preserved during the renovation project?

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: archive of Czech Centre in New York
“Essentially the façade was preserved and the big ballroom was really restored and preserved.

“But otherwise the entire building was rebuilt.

“Again, I saw these reports a bunch of years ago, people were saying it cost too much. Quite frankly in New York City construction dollars, it was a bargain in a way, per square foot, etcetera.

“The way it’s done – you have real mouldings, real plaster, real masonry walls. It’s superb.

“Even, when you look around, after 10 years of heavy, heavy use and obviously some maintenance, it’s still a superbly fitted-out building.”

Somebody told me there used to be a grand staircase that was lost during the renovation.

“I would not call it grand staircase. Yes, it was a staircase. It was falling apart completely and needed to be replaced.

“Also with any renovation you have to follow construction codes, so whatever could be restored, the architects responsible decided to restore.

“Otherwise it has very modern elements.”

What was the single most difficult part of the renovation?

“People were saying it cost too much. Quite frankly in New York City construction dollars, it was a bargain in a way.”

“What I remember in the second phase, technically, was the spiral staircase. That was kind of challenging for the teams.

“But in general what was probably difficult was that the Czech company that was responsible could not really bring their own people.

“So for the first phase they were forced to hire local companies. I remember they said they had used the Yellow Pages [laughs].”

Was this because of immigration regulations?

“Yes, the American authorities would not let them in. That created a fairly big obstacle and challenge for them.

“In the second phase… this is actually how I got introduced to it, because I’m local and with my construction background and knowledge of the market I was able to help them with suppliers and contractors.

“We even gave them a bunch of our guys to help them run the project.”

If I understand it right, there have been a few different [Czech] restaurants here and it’s taken some time for them to become successful but the current one [Bohemian Spirit] is?

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Yes. Yes. When we started the first thing with my dear friends Tomáš Karpíšek and Daniel Kronďák from [Prague restaurants group] Ambiente, we really tried very, very hard to do something special.

“At that time Ambiente had got their first Michelin star with their La Degustation restaurant, so the idea was to show that we can do top-notch, world cuisine.

“That required massive amounts of capital. Unfortunately, the building is in the middle of a block, so it’s a fairly unusual location for a restaurant.

“The other thing is that for many, many years there was this massive construction going on on Second Avenue [adjacent to the section of East 73rd St. where BNH is], the Second Avenue subway system.

“There were trenches there, so even for people from the other side of Second Avenue it was physically fairly challenging just to cross to get to the restaurant.

“And you know, New York City, there are gazillions of restaurants here. So it’s tough to compete, especially if you’re hidden away, etcetera.

“Also the building has many, many limitations, because of its landmark façade. Also because of the fact that the foundation is here, we have the Czech Consulate here, we don’t want to have any banners on the outside.

“In New York City there are gazillions of restaurants. So it’s tough to compete, especially if you’re hidden away.”

“That was challenging. So after a bunch of years, Tomáš and Daniel and myself decided it didn’t make sense.

“We actually tried one more thing but again it was tough. Then at the last moment I brought in a local group and that didn’t work out whatsoever.

“And then we found Vít [Stuchl] and his wife Vlasta and they work essentially 24/7 in the restaurant.

“Now it’s very simple Czech cuisine and it’s not losing money, it’s breaking even, and it’s awesome – people love it. It’s very inexpensive and good.”

I spoke to you around 10 years ago, before the place opened. It was kind of half-renovated in those days. How does the reality of the Bohemian National Hall today compare to what you hoped for at that time, just before it opened?

“I actually hoped that it would function in terms of its mechanical components, etcetera [laughs]. That was my thing.

“Then I kind of envisioned that it would be really neat if the foundation and its individual sub-groups and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ representatives – meaning the Consulate, the Czech Center, etc. – would really work cohesively together, and cooperate.

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“And we’ve really managed to do that. I’m very, very happy and I’m very proud of the people who were here but are not any more – because people representing the Czech Republic move on, etcetera.

“But we really turned it around beautifully and now I think it’s really superb.

“It also generates income for the actual upkeep of the building, income that feeds our individual groups.

“I could not be happier. And again the team that we have here, those dedicated people who work for this, I want to thank them. I’m proud of them.”