BNH: Celebrating a New York City Landmark
In 2014 Bohemian National Hall celebrated its 20th Anniversary as a designated New York City Landmark, and in April 2015 our city marks the 50th Anniversary of New York City Landmarks Preservation Law. In honor of these two important events, we would like to share with you some of the history and photographs of this extraordinary building at 321 East 73rd Street, as it evolved from the vibrant immigrant hall serving the Czech and Slovak community of the late 19th and 20th century to its present life as an active center of Czech cultural, commercial, and political affairs in New York. The story of its survival is rich in human endeavor and perseverance, as well as in architectural and design excellence. Today the five-story Renaissance Revival building proudly houses, in state-of-the-art facilities, the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, the Consulate General of the Czech Republic, the Czech Center New York, and BBLA non-profit affiliates including the Dvorak American Heritage Association and the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation, among others.
Left: Bohemian National Hall after renovation (photo by Marian Benes).
Right: Bohemian National Hall in 1901 (photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Collection)
The Beginnings and Evolution
In the 1880s, the Czech community began to migrate from the Lower East Side to the Upper East Side to find work in cigar factories and other small-scale enterprises. A large, permanent meeting place was desired in the new neighborhood, the Yorkville section of New York, extending from Second Avenue to the East River, between East 65th Street and East 78th Street. Fundraising began in the early 1890s through various events, one of which received support from Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, then in residency in New York City. The new Narodni Budova (National Hall), designed by architect William C. Frohne and constructed between 1895 and 1897, served multiple purposes and contained, among other amenities, classrooms for language instruction, a double-story grand ballroom, a shooting gallery, a theatre, a bowling alley, a vault for banking and insurance documents, and a restaurant. The building witnessed many weddings, receptions and performances; several generations of students kept their mother tongue alive in its classrooms; and wartime liberty bonds were sold by patriotic Czech and Slovak Americans.
"Get-Together," Bohemian National Hall Ballroom, 1939. Photo: BBLA Archive
Restaurant at Bohemian National Hall. Photo: BBLA Archive
The Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association, founded in 1891 and the owner of the building for over 100 years, at one time gathered under its umbrella over eighty separate Czech and Slovak community associations and clubs. The building was active into the mid-twentieth century, but as many in the Czech and Slovak community moved to the outer boroughs and suburbs, it suffered a gradual decline, barely surviving financially with rentals, and unable to maintain the large structure. The community leaders explored options but finally, in the 1970s, the deteriorated building was declared unsafe and faced possible demolition. >> Read more about evolution of Czech and Slovak community in New York City (by Vlado Simko)..
View of the Ballroom before renovation. Photo by Marian Benes
The New Vision
The vision which ultimately prevailed was put forward by noted Czech American preservation architect Jan Hird Pokorny who served as a Commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Commission from 1997-2007. After stabilization and restoration of the façade, the building ownership was transferred to the Czech Government in 2001 for a nominal sum of $1. Extensive interior restoration and renovation work was undertaken by the new owners and the official grand opening took place in October 2008.
Dedication ceremony in Ballroom, before renovation. Photo by Marian Benes
View of the renovated Ballroom in 2008. Photo by Marian Benes
"Narod sobe" (Our Country for Ourselves), stage detail after renovation. Photo by Marian Benes
Today, the building features two state-of-the art performance spaces – including the historic ballroom – two art galleries, a cinema, library and reception areas, as well as the Dvorak Room, highlighting the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and his American legacy. Not only does the 21st century “Narodni Budova” provide a home base for the Czech Government, BBLA, and its non-profit affiliates, but the exciting programs and facilities offered by the various resident organizations and through special arrangements of the Bohemian National Hall assure that diverse audiences are able to enjoy a remarkable example of New York City architecture, restored to its former beauty and life, thanks in large part to the building’s designation as a New York City Landmark.
View of the lobby area after renovation in 2008. Photo by Marian Benes
Prague Philharmonia concert, conductor Jiri Belohlavek (March 2011)
"Evening for Vaclav Havel" memorial concert (March 2012)
Book launch by Madeleine Albright, former United States Secretary of State (April 2012). Photo: BBLA Archive
Annual Beseda Ball 2014. Photo: BBLA Archive
JOIN US for guided tours of the Bohemian National Hall on Saturday, April 18th and Saturday, May 2nd at 3 PM, as part of the citywide celebration initiated by the NYC Landmarks 50 Alliance. For further information, visit www.nyclandmarks50.org. Also, check our Upcoming Events for details on the tours.
Bohemian National Hall, New York City Landmarks Commission Designation Report of July1994: http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/BNH026.pdf
Czech Places, Memory Traces: The Bohemian National Hall and Other Stories. Edited by Jaroslav Andel. (Czech Center, New York, 2008).