Dvořák's Neighborhoods

In the Czech Republic everything connected to Dvořák is lovingly preserved and maintained. Besides his country house "Vysoka," there is a charming Dvořák Museum in Prague not far from his last apartment. His archives are splendidly preserved, and his birthplace, Nelahozeves, is now a state-supported tourist attraction. In America, only a few vestiges of Dvořák's old world remain and they are fast disappearing. The Midway Plaisance, near the University of Chicago, site of the exotic villages over which Ferris's wheels once loomed, is now a grassy field, good for strolling, sunning, and sports. The Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, built in 1887 for Bohemian speaking Catholics in New York City, where Dvořák sought the comfort of his mother tongue as he offered a Mass for the Dead for his beloved Tatinku ("daddy"), was torn down in 1998.

Happily the tiny farm village of Spillville, Iowa remains caught in a time warp. The squarish brick house where the Dvořák family spent their summer, known these days as the "Bily Clock House," remains intact. The upper floor where the family slept is now a modest museum. In a glass case Indian artifacts mingle with a stub of a pipe used by Dvořák; lying nearby is a fading Dvořák letter. The village church and its antique organ, upon which Dvořák played Czech Hymns every morning, is lovingly maintained.


Antonín Dvořák Statue by sculptor Ivan Meštrović, Stuyvesant Park, New York City.  Photo courtesy Traian Stanescu.

Parts of Dvořák's old neighborhood in downtown New York remain evocative of his time. Although Lüchow's German restaurant on 14th Street, the place where H. L. Mencken reports that his drinking buddy, the music critic and novelist James Gibbons Huneker, took Dvořák for his first "Manhattan" (cocktail) and got him sloshed, is but a fond memory, there is enough left of the old neighborhood - the Washington Irving House, Saint George's Episcopal Church, and Stuyvesant Square Park - to afford the stroller authentic flashes of the turn-of-the-century ambience. One can still walk Dvořák's daily path along 17th Street, from the north wing of Washington Irving High School, where the Conservatory once stood just off Irving Place. In the middle of the first block you pass the side entrance to what was Scheffel's Beer Hall (built in 1894). We can imagine Dvořák, who was a lover of beer and had a daily pail delivered to his house, stepping in for a quick mug; in one of its many more recent transformations, Scheffel's was home to a jazz club named Fat Tuesday's and featured a hologram of Dizzy Gillespie in front of its strikingly massive Renaissance Revival facade around the corner on Third Avenue. 

Upon crossing Third Avenue you can take in a lovely block lined almost completely with 19th century brownstones. The block opens onto the uptown side of Stuyvesant Square Park just as you became aware of Saint George's, the church where Harry T. Burleigh reigned for over forty years as baritone soloist and where many of his art songs and arrangements of spirituals were first heard. Soon you pass the statue of Peter Stuyvesant, dubbed by Dvořák "the one legged pirate." And before you, breaching the Park, is Second Avenue, a street the Maestro feared crossing alone. At the Northeast corner of the park stands a statue of Dvořák erected in 1997 in memory of the modest brownstone at 327 East 17th Street that, until it was demolished in 1991, had survived among a brave row of 19th century houses. This was where the Dvořák family kept a five room flat during their two and a half years in America. DAHA, the Dvořák American Heritage Association - first formed to rescue the house from demolition - raised the money for the statue and lobbied successfully for the renaming of East 17th Street along the Park as "Dvořák Place," and is now committed to the perpetuation of Dvořák's American story.