Dvořák House in New York and DAHA
Mounted upon the facade of the house was a handsome bronze plaque. In the center is a large bas-relief portrait of Dvořák identified in large letters:
THE FAMOUS CZECH COMPOSER ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) LIVED IN THIS HOUSE FROM 1892 UNTIL 1895.
The text in smaller letters, also cast as part of the plaque, reads as follows:
IN MEMORY OF HIS 100th BIRTHDAY AND FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS OF FREE CZECHOSLOVAKIANS, THE GRATEFUL GOVERNMENT IN EXILE CAUSED THIS INSCRIPTION TO BE ERECTED ON DECEMBER 13th 1941. LONGING FOR HIS CZECH HOME, YET HAPPILY INSPIRED BY THE FREEDOM OF AMERICAN LIFE, HE WROTE HERE AMONG OTHER WORKS THE NEW WORLD SYMPHONY, BIBLICAL SONGS, THE CELLO CONCERTO.
On the afternoon of December 13, 1941, only a few days after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, a dedication ceremony was held in the house. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gave the opening remarks:
"... Dvořák produced much that will live forever, and his music will be played and his name will be honored when the names of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Mikado [sic] will be found only by referring to the criminal[s] ... of history."
Jan Masaryk, foreign minister of the Czech-Government-in-Exile, then spoke:
"We Czechoslovakians and Americans of Czechoslovakian descent swear by the memory of Dvořák that we will do everything in our power to help the new world, because by so doing we will help to compose the real 'new world symphony' of free people."
It was Masaryk's father who, with the help of President Wilson, finally succeeded in establishing Czechoslovakia as an independent nation after the First World War. Dvořák, and his American house, was for the Czech-American community and the Czech Government-in-Exile, a precious symbol of that legacy.
There were three representatives from the New York Philharmonic in attendance: Bruno Walter, its music director and conductor; Arthur Judson, who represented the board; and Joseph Kovařík, Dvořák's former assistant who lived in the house with the Dvořák family forty-nine years earlier, now a member of the orchestra's viola section. Fritz Kreisler, the violinist, came to pay his respects. It was Kreisler who renamed Dvořák's Sonatina for Violin and Piano the "Indian Lament." The Sonatina, one of Dvořák's "American" works, holds the significant opus number 100, set aside by the composer for a new work to honor and entertain his two eldest children, Antonin, age 10, and Otilie, age 15. The first rendition, in that very room where the dedication ceremony was held, in Dvorak's own words, "[my] favorite premiere." Dvořák's old pupils Edward B. Kinney and Harry T. Burleigh (age 75) also attended. Two youthful Czech-born artists, Rudolf Firkušny, the pianist, and Jarmila Novotná, the Metropolitan Opera star, performed several of the "Biblical Songs," also composed in the House. Little did they know that fifty years later they would become active in the, alas, unsuccessful campaign to rescue the Dvořák House from the territorial ambitions of nearby Beth Israel Hospital.
Maurice Peress, American conductor and college professor, described his 1990 visit to the house:
"Not surprisingly, in the hundred years since Dvořák lived there, the building underwent some modernization, the most radical change being a circular staircase between parlor floor and the ground floor, and the removal of the exterior stoop. But the principal rooms, which overlooked the rear garden and the street, retained their original marble mantelpieces and much of the woodwork survived as well. The window shutters were still folded into their paneled boxes, and the massive doors and window frames were intact.
"I could imagine where Dvořák set the piano that William Steinway sent over from his 14th Street showroom ... in the back room near the garden window, with the north light coming over his right shoulder. I envisioned the Kneisel (string) Quartet during one of their visits, set up in the corner next to the fireplace, and Dvořák's children gathered round the piano playing the Sonatina. I wondered, In which room did Burleigh sing to Dvořák?
"I joined the battle to save the Dvořák House. We gave concerts, formed a committee of distinguished 'friends' and lobbied local and national politicians. But within fourteen months of my first visit, the house was no more. For one brief period our efforts seemed to have been rewarded when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission officially designated the Dvořák House a cultural landmark on February 26, 1991, but four months later the designation was overturned by the City Council — the first reversal of its kind by that body. In the interim we enlisted William Warfield to sing 'Goin' Home' at a City Council public hearing. The hospital countered, calling upon its deepest political connections and convincing Isaac Stern, savior of Carnegie Hall, to declare on television: "We have the music, Dvořák was there for only a short time, why keep a building that has changed beyond recognition?" To my naive surprise the New York Times came down against us. An editorial appeared with the heading 'Dvořák Doesn't Live Here Anymore,' on March 7, 1991. It was an embittering experience, my first real encounter with city politics and with raw, arrogant power.
"I was heartsick over the destruction of the central icon of Dvořák's American period, and mortified before my Czech friends who - coming from a country where historic churches, synagogues, and houses both modest and grand are cherished and lovingly maintained - could not understand why the United States would allow such a desecration. I was also particularly saddened for Jarmila Novotná. Having sung at the dedication of the plaque fifty years earlier, she was more than another concerned artist. Novotná was, in the greater sense, a trustee. And knowing that she had been there with Burleigh, Kovařík, Kreisler, and others who worked with the master made the hundred years between myself and Dvořák almost fathomable.
"One of the most devoted Dvořák House proponents, the architect Jan Hird Pokorny, made arrangements to have the bas-relief plaque and the parlor–floor mantels removed and placed in storage at the Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan's East 73rd Street. The building was erected in 1895/97 by the Czech community with the help of Dvořák, who raised money for it when he first arrived in New York. These elements have become part of the Bohemian Hall's planned Dvořák Room. Had the battle to save the Dvořák House taken place a year later, when the 100th anniversary of Dvořák's American adventure got underway and a cascade of Dvořák articles and celebrations descended upon us, I firmly believe the house would still be standing. Maybe a Dvořák Museum on Stuyvesant Square park would have had a chance."