Czech State buys Czech National Hall in NYC

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The historic Czech National Hall in New York City became the property of the Czech state on Friday. The Czech state bought the building for the symbolic price of one dollar, ending years of negotiations and disputes, hopes and fears over the fate of the building. It was built by Czech and Slovak refugees at the end of the 19th Century and played an important role in the lives of generations of Czechs and Slovaks in the New World. Olga Szantova who visited the site in New York not long ago, reports.

My guide through the empty and neglected five-story building on Manhattan's East 73rd Street was architect Jan Pokorny, chairman of the committee which for years worked to try and save the National Hall. He was also instrumental in having it declared a New York City landmark. In order to be designated a city landmark, a building has to have either historic or architectural value, Mr. Pokorny told me.

"In this case it was both. And for the city it has a significance because there were many buildings which cultural minorities from abroad built - the Germans did, the Hungarians did, but this is the only one left and it's architecturally beautiful compared to the others. So the city decided to make it a landmark, and that's good, that means that nobody can tear it down."

But somebody has to keep it up.

"Well, that's our problem. We are keeping it up, we pay the taxes and we pay insurance."

But much more than that was needed, the building was really neglected, as I saw when Mr. Pokorny took me inside. We took the elevator upstairs.

"This is the original elevator. There are only a few of them still around, maybe at Macy's." Mr Pokorny showed me around the rooms upstairs. "That used to be the Czech school and next to it the Slovak school. We always had a school here. It wasn't a full time school, just the language and history were taught here. And that is the ballroom, incredible, isn't it? Above the stage there's the words Narod sobe - the nation to itself, it's the same as in the National Theatre in Prague, the two were built at the same time."

The National Hall used to be the center of Czech and Slovak life, 39 various organizations used to meet here, and in its heyday there was a restaurant and four bars. I was amazed to see Mr. Pokorny's enthusiasm and firm belief in the future of the Czech National Hall. His dream of restoring the building is now set to come true, despite the prospect of a huge bill for renovation.

"The basic construction will cost about four million dollars and then the rest of it probably another three, so that's not so easy to get together. The Hall stopped being used because the Czechs moved away from here. There used to be 40 000 Czechs around this building, now they are all in the suburbs, they can't afford the rents that are around here. But the building is certainly worth preserving. It's a national landmark, it's a Czech landmark, it's a monument for us."

As of Friday the historic building on New York's East 73rd Street is the property of the Czech State, and what's most important, the state will pay for its restoration. The work should be completed in 2004, when the National Hall will once again become the center of Czech activities in New York.

Author: Olga Szantová
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