Farewell to Jan Hus Presbyterian Church As We Know It
By Majda Kallab Whitaker | In a heady, multi-million-dollar New York City real estate transaction, the historic Jan Hus Presbyterian Church will be leaving its 131-year-old edifice at 351 East 74st Street, and moving to a new location at East 90st Street and First Avenue. The Jan Hus Church building has been purchased and will be renovated by the Church of the Epiphany, which in turn will see its 1930s church at York Avenue and 74th Street demolished and replaced by a Weill-Cornell Medical Center building. It is considered a “win” for all the parties involved, answering to their present and future needs, but does not fail to take the breath away from dedicated preservationists and historians of the Yorkville District.
In marking the departure of our close neighbors and compatriots, we wish to pay tribute to this relic of the Bohemian immigrant past. The Jan Hus Presbyterian Church was built in 1888 by noted architect R. H. Robertson and expanded in 1915 with the adjacent Neighborhood House by Ludlow & Peabody to serve the broader needs of the Czech community. The Church design evokes the streetscape of Prague with its distinctive Romanesque and Gothic Revival details, including a tower said to recall the entrance to Charles Bridge, which was added in 1915 as part of the expansion.
The Church has played a prominent role in the community from its earliest days of Czech-language services with choral and organ accompaniment and traditional marionette shows to its more recent neighborhood activities— including performances of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre founded by Vit Horejs—and an important homeless outreach program. It has been a key component of Czech and Slovak New York, and preservationists continue to seek landmark designation in recognition of its architectural distinction and rich cultural past.
Located on East 74th Street between First and Second Avenues, the Church was originally founded in 1874 by missionary Rev. Gustav Albert Alexy who had begun a small parish on the Lower East Side. It was originally known as Bohemian Brethren Presbyterian Church. Reverend Vincent Pisek, a community leader who served as pastor of the Church from the 1880s to 1930, is commemorated in a plaque and bas relief on the façade of the Church. It is Pisek who in his 46-year service raised the funds to build the Church and led it so ably and proudly. His New York Times Obituary of February 7, 1930 states he wed 11,582 couples and not one of them was divorced! That is a major achievement indeed and no doubt greatly expanded the Czech community.
There are so many memories. We wish the Church members well at their new location, but will miss them greatly as our next-door neighbors when they leave in early June. We also extend a warm welcome to the new resident owners, who expect to occupy the building by 2021, and hope they will preserve this gem of the Yorkville neighborhood for many years to come.
Majda Kallab Whitaker is an independent scholar and curatorial consultant, and as a Board Member of the Dvorak American Heritage Association (DAHA), acts as project advisor of the Dvorak Room in the Bohemian National Hall. A graduate of Bard Graduate Center and Vassar College, she curates exhibitions and lectures on subjects related to late nineteenth and early twentieth century cultural and design history. She was born in Prague, and recently joined the Board of BBLA.