Bohemian National Hall set to become centre of Czech New York once again

Bohemian National Hall, photo: Ian Willoughby

In the first half of the 20th century the Česká národní budova (Bohemian National Hall) was THE Czech social centre in New York, before later sinking into disrepair. Now the building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is receiving a major facelift, and should again be the pride of Czech New York when it reopens its doors later this year. In this edition of Panorama, we’ll be hearing about the past – and future – of the Česká národní budova.

Joseph Balaz is president of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, which collected the money to build the National Hall back in the 1890s and administers it to this day:

“The building was built in 1896 as a gathering place for all the Czech and Slovak immigrants in the neighbourhood.”

The neighbourhood Mr Balaz is referring to is Yorkville, which was once home to thirty or forty thousand Czechs. But the first immigrants from Czechoslovakia actually settled in Lower Manhattan, says Ed Chlanda of the BBLA,the American Fund for Czech & Slovak Leadership Studies and New York Sokol.

Ed Chlanda
“The groups were originally down on the Lower East Side and as you know they gradually migrated up to Yorkville, because that’s where their jobs were, as cigar cutting factories were here. They had to find new space and with all these different groups and different activities they needed a bigger building. At the time Sokol decided to have a building of their own, but the other groups went ahead and built the Bohemian National Hall.”

What were the activities that went on? I know for instance there was a shooting gallery.

“Yes, there was a shooting gallery downstairs in the basement, there were Czech classes, there was a ballroom on the fifth floor, and that’s being restored now, there was a restaurant…so all sorts of social activities went on there.”

When would the Bohemian National Hall have been in its heyday?

“They talk about a golden age of Czech immigrants, and that’s basically when there was unrestricted immigration. In the late 1920s, the mid-1920s, the US established a quota system for immigrants, but before that there was open immigration from at that time Austria-Hungary. Waves of them came over – from the 1880s through to the 1930s, there was a huge wave of immigrants and they formed all these organisations and had a very active community life here.”

What about your own connections to the Bohemian National Hall?

“Well, as I tell everybody, the ballroom’s being restored now and my mother used to dance the polka upstairs in that ballroom and my father drank beer there, and when it reopens this October I plan to do both.”

The Bohemian National Hall was THE Czech social centre in New York, and was visited by some of the leading figures of the day, including the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. But it eventually went into decline. Ed Chlanda explains how:

“Czechs were very good at being assimilated and moved out. A great deal of the tenement space here in the Yorkville area was taken over by hospitals, the housing and factories were replaced. It became less convenient for the Czechs, and as they moved up the economic ladder they moved out of this area and into other areas. The war came along and speeded up the process of assimilation as well.”

The rejuvenation of the Bohemian National Hall got underway when the Czech state bought it from the BBLA in 2001 for the symbolic price of one dollar. But the gestation of the project began a few years before that, says Joseph Balaz:

“About ten years ago the consul general of the Czech Republic in New York was Petr Gandalovič and my predecessor as president of the BBLA Jan Pokorny decided it would be great if our organisation gave this facility as a gift to the Czech Republic and the Czech Republic would renovate it – then together we could run it as a sort of Czech cultural centre. It was a great gift, at that time valued at 35 million dollars.”

How many parts of the building are being completely renovated and changed beyond recognition? And how many parts have been kept basically as they were?

“The ballroom, which is I would say the most historic part of the building, is being restored as much as possible. The other areas, mainly the offices on various floors are being modernised, with new equipment, space division, etc.”

When it opens its doors later this year, what will this building house?

Bohemian National Hall
“The building will have the offices of the consulate in New York, the offices of the Czech Centre. An entire floor belongs to the BBLA and there are public spaces, for instance the ballroom and a theatre downstairs. Also, hopefully, we will have a Czech restaurant downstairs.”

Finally, the thoughts of one of those planning to move into the Česká národní budova when it opens its doors in late October, the Czech ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Martin Palouš.

“I think this is going to be a really big opportunity for the Czech Republic, because as you can see this building offers a lot of opportunities. I hope that there will be a chance to not only show or present Czech artists to an American audience, but to do more interactive and more interesting…confrontations. This building can serve not only to bring Czech art here, but to offer a space for communication between Czech artists and artists who are at home here in Manhattan…It could be a revival of bohemia in the US, in New York.”

What’s your impression of the building itself and the work that’s been done renovating it?

“It’s taken a little bit more time than I originally expected that it would. But I think that it’s going to be a very good reconstruction. Obviously I haven’t had a chance to see the final result, but I’m quite optimistic as far as that goes.”