Gov’t funds building of Czech expat hub
New York City
When George Suchánek moved from his native Czechoslovakia to New York City in 1965, he was seeking a lifetime opportunity. As many discovered before and since then, however, city life can be lonely for a newcomer — which is why he was grateful to meet many like-minded Czech expats at the Bohemian National Hall, or Národní Budova, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“It used to be one of the most popular places for Czechs and Slovaks in New York,” recalls Suchánek, owner of Zlatá Praha, a Czech restaurant in Astoria, Queens. “I used to work there on and off. … There were wonderful, traditional events and plenty of famous people who visited.”
In recent times, however, the grand neo-Renaissance building at 321 East 73rd street, which once served a variety of social, athletic and intellectual groups for Czech immigrants, had fallen into disrepair.
On Oct. 30, a grand opening ceremony will mark the Bohemian National Hall’s opening after renovations worth approximately 730 million Kč ($40.9 million), the country’s biggest investment abroad.
A variety of personalities, including Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, are expected to attend the festivities, which are scheduled to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.
The four-story building, built in the 19th century, will serve as the home of the Czech General Consulate, as well as the Czech Center in New York. Other features include an Art Deco–era ballroom, a gallery, a library and a private cinema.
According to Tomáš Hart, deputy general consul of the Czech Republic in New York, the building’s primary goal will be to honor the many generations of Czech immigrants while presenting the nation to local residents and tourists.
As the country prepares to take the reigns of the European Union presidency in January, this public relations project is particularly important, and will be complemented by a variety of professional and social events.
“It will really become the address of the Czech Republic in New York,” Hart said. “New York is a city of immigrants. … Each nation contributes something to the city’s diversity and vibrant atmosphere, so it is only natural that Czechs … have such a wonderful place to exhibit what [their country] really means.”
Added Suchánek, “Everyone in the Czech Republic wants to visit or do business in New York City, so it will be a great place for that.”
Old World Glamour
The building was designed by William C. Frohne, the architect also responsible for the city’s German-American Rifle Association site on the Lower East Side. Fashioned out of light brick and limestone, design experts say the building, which features an exterior of columned portico and soaring arcades, differs from other architecture of the period due to its distinctly European flair.
When it opened in 1896, the building was located in the heart of what Suchánek calls the city’s thriving Bohemian Quarter.
Flanked by pricey tenements on either side, the Bohemian National Center is now the sole reminder of that period. “Unfortunately, the neighborhood has changed drastically,” Suchánek said.
The Czech government took over the building from emigrant groups in 2001, but the subsequent renovation was not without its complications. Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg blamed the Czech Republic’s frequent changes in foreign-based government officials for prolonging the overhaul.
Czech officials have praised the quality of the renovation, and say they are confident that the Bohemian National Hall will once again serve as New York’s most important vestige of Czech culture. “All suppliers have done an excellent job, and the renovation was done very professionally,” Hart said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen during my time in New York.”
Noticeably absent from the Bohemian National Hall is food, but officials say they hope to amend that by establishing an onsite eatery serving Czech specialties. It is that aspect that Suchánek is most looking forward to.
“We put in all kinds of work and invested lots of personal interest in this building, so we hope it will be important for future generations of Czechs in New York,” he said. “It fills me with great satisfaction and pleasure to see the building useful again.”