History of the Bohemian National Hall

Bohemian National Hall . Photo courtesy of DAHA

1896 – Designed by architect William C. Frohne in neo-Renaissance palazzo style, Bohemian National Hall opens at 321-325 East 73rd Street in Manhattan following successful Czech community fundraising campaign, including Antonín Dvořák-led concert in 1892.

1897 – Fifty-plus Czech émigré social, sporting, and intellectual clubs gather in Hall, but space constraints require construction of eastern addition to existing building identical in style and materials to fully accommodate group activity in restaurant, bar, club rooms, top-floor ballroom/theater, basement bowling alley and shooting gallery.

1914 – New theater annex on East 74th Street provides additional facility for World War I political activism, including $500,000 Liberty Bond sale for Czechoslovak homeland sovereignty, soon to be realized.

1938 – Political activity resumes following Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.

1940-60s – Theater annex leased out as private operation to professional drama groups; other facilities made available for rental income.

1986 – Ghostly rotting building declared unfit for occupancy, though partial use permitted for occasional community events through 1990s.

1994 – Designated New York City landmark by Landmarks Preservation Commission.

2001 – Czech Republic buys building for one dollar from Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association, umbrella organization for several Czech community clubs originally formed in 1900s.

2002 – Architects chosen, plans drawn for $10 million state-of-the-art renovation; tender held for general contractor, subcontractor, won by PSJ Holding, Czech company.

2003 – Renovation work begins; careful restoration of principal façade completed by Czech-American architect Jan Hird Pokorny.

2005 – Renovation of third floor partly completed, including Dvořák space; building opens for partial use by Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association.

2006 – DvořákAmerican Heritage Association (DAHA) awarded space for DvořákRoom in BNH. Plans call for display of Dvořák House plaque, fireplace mantel, and other artifacts.  Room temporarily used as office by government of Czech Republic.

2008 – Official opening of building with ballroom, BBLA art gallery, library, and Dvořák Room, along with Czech Republic government offices including Czech Center and Czech Consulate. Hospoda Restaurant opened later.

Take a virtual tour of the Bohemian National Hall here!


Background of Bohemian National Hall

Bohemian National Hall, circa 1901. Photo courtesy of Museum of the City of New York, The Wurts Collection.

321-325 East 73rd Street, Manhattan.

Built 1895, 1897: architect William C. Frohne.

Bohemian National Hall (Národní Budova) is a rare survivor of the social halls built in the nineteenth century for New York City’s immigrant ethnic communities.  Constructed in two phases in 1895 and 1897, it replaced an earlier National Hall on Manhattan's East 5th Street, which had served the Czech and Slovak population living in the Tompkins Square area of the Lower East Side. As members of the Czech and Slovak population moved to Yorkville in the late nineteenth century in search of better housing and employment, the Hall followed. It immediately became home to most of the city's Czech and Slovak social clubs and organizations.

The five-story building was designed by William C. Frohne in the Renaissance Revival style. Richly ornamented, it is faced in buff Roman brick, stone, and terra cotta. Among its prominent features are a projecting entrance porch with paired granite columns and a two-story arcade with Ionic columns resting on lion's-head bases.

Bohemian National Hall has been an important center for Czech and Slovak culture in New York City for more than one hundred years. From the beginning, it served as a focal point for its community, offering ethnic food, instruction in Czech language and history, and space for its large community meetings. During World War I the Hall served as the New York center for the liberation activities that ultimately helped create the nation of Czechoslovakia, carved out of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Today, Bohemian National Hall survives as a significant reminder of a major working-class ethnic enclave which once flourished in Yorkville and as a very visible representative of an important aspect of immigrant history in New York City and the United States.

Credit: Text in this and following related sections adapted from New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Bohemian National Hall Designation Report (LP-1914) (New York: City of New York, 1994). Prepared by Anthony W. Robins. See also: Christopher Gray, "Cityscape: Bohemian National hall, On East 73rd Street, A Lingering Vestige of a Czech Heritage," The New York Times, Sunday, March 15, 1987.

Czechs and Slovaks in New York City

Large-scale Czech and Slovak immigration to the United States began in the nineteenth century, when the present-day Czech and Slovak republics were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czech immigration, like much other Central European immigration, was sparked by the revolutionary movements of 1848; Slovak immigration began in the early 1870s, picking up in numbers after 1890. 

The first wave of Czechs generally settled in the Midwestern states where inexpensive farmland was available, and the largest Czech communities developed in Midwestern cities. Many Czech immigrants settled in New York City, however, and by the late 1870s had formed a community on the Lower East Side in the area around Tompkins Square, already known as a German enclave. The Czechs located between East Houston and East 8th Streets around the Square, and especially from East 3rd to East 5th Streets along Avenue A; Avenue B became known as "Czech Boulevard." The great majority of the Czech and Slovak immigrants were working class, who arrived with certain industries, such as the fabrication of pearl buttons and cigar manufacture. 

During the 1880s and early 1890s (following the construction of the Third Avenue El), the Czech community migrated from the Lower East Side to the Upper East Side, settling in the Yorkville area between Second Avenue and the East River, roughly from East 65th to East 78th Streets. 

They were joined there by the Slovak immigrants. (By 1900, the Czechoslovak population in New York City rose to 27,000.) Yorkville at that time had a diverse immigrant population, including Germans, Italians, Irish, Hungarians, Greeks, Jews from Central Europe, and African Americans.

The Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, built in 1887 on 61st Street between First and Second Avenues for Bohemian-speaking Catholics, was where Dvořák sought the comfort of his mother tongue as he offered a Mass for the Dead for his beloved father in 1894. The Jan Hus Church, built in 1885 at 74th Street between First and Second Avenues, served the Protestant Czech community, while Slovaks worshipped at the Slovak Church of St. John Nepomucene, built in 1895 at 411 East 66th Street at First Avenue.

Founding of the Bohemian National Hall

During the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, immigrant groups adapted the American custom of forming fraternal organizations which served a variety of social, political, and economic functions.  The first Czech organization, the "Czech Society," opened in New York City in 1850, just two years after the influx of Czech immigrants had begun.  

While Czech and Slovak communities in the Midwest built their own social halls, it was not until 1882 that such a hall was built in Manhattan. In that year, a group of Czech fraternal organizations bought out Hubacek's saloon at 533 East 5th Street, already their informal headquarters, and renovated it for use as the Narodni Budova ("national hall"). Even as the Narodni Budova was being organized, the Czech and Slovak population had begun their migration to Yorkville. In 1895, the old Narodni Budova on East 5th Street was replaced with a new Narodni Budova at 321-325 East 73rd Street. While built for the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association, it specifically was intended as a meeting place for all Czech and Slovak organizations. Fundraising was a major effort; among the events was a "festive welcome" for the world-renowned Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who had arrived in New York City for what was to be a three-year stay.  

The new Bohemian National Hall contained a ground-floor restaurant and bar, individual club rooms, a basement bowling alley and shooting gallery, and a ballroom/theater on the top floor. Its facilities must have been overwhelmed by demand because in 1897, little over a year after opening, the five-story, fifty-foot-wide structure was extended twenty-five feet to the east.  

The Architect and the Building

The new Bohemian National Hall, built in two stages in 1895 and 1897, was designed by architect William Frohne in the Renaissance Revival style. Little is known about Frohne or his career. He was in practice as early as 1888 and continued until at least 1921.  

Besides Bohemian National Hall, Frohne's other major known work was another club building for an immigrant community: the German Shooting Club at 12 St. Mark's Place. The Shooting Club, a five-story building with a prominent mansard and elaborate ornament, was constructed in 1888, twelve years before Bohemian Hall. 

Bohemian National Hall, a five-story building organized in six bays, is seventy-five feet wide and faced in buff Roman brick, stone, and terra cotta. The bays are articulated with paired columns and pilasters, molded window surrounds, stone banding, and stringcourses. Adding to its ornamental qualities are relief panels and decorative ironwork enclosing the areaway and bases of the fifth-story windows as well as adorning the fire escape.

The prominent, projecting entrance porch is framed by paired, polished granite columns and surmounted by an entablature carrying spheres. (This porch was enlarged when the original building was extended.)

Signaling the placement of the ballroom and theater at the upper stories is a two-story arcade with paired Ionic columns resting on lion’s-head bases.  (The lion is a symbol of Bohemia.) The windows contained paired wood sash set below transoms.  The words "Narodni Budova" appear on the first-story frieze, and "Bohemian-National-Hall" appears on the cornice.

Later History of the Bohemian National Hall

Czech and Slovak community life revolved around the Bohemian National Hall over most of the following century. During the First World War, when Czech and Slovak aspirations for a homeland independent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire showed signs of possible fulfillment, meetings were held at the Hall. (In World War I, Liberty Bonds totaling $500,000 were sold there; the peace settlement resulted in the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia.) 

The Bohemian National Hall continued as a Czech and Slovak institution for many decades, while the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association continued to maintain the building. As the Czech and Slovak populations moved out to the suburbs, however, fewer and fewer functions were held at the Hall. Space in the building had been rented out to other organizations, including many unions, from early on; progressively more space seems to have been devoted to such use over the years. From the 1940s to the 1980s the theater annex was rented out to a private operation. In 1986 the Hall was declared unfit for occupancy. In this threatened state, efforts to save the building were stepped up, culminating with its designation as a New York City landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in July 1994.

Bohemian National Hall, 1990s to Present

On December 7, 2001 ownership of the Bohemian National Hall was transferred to the Czech Republic according to the contract between the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association (BBLA) and the Czech Republic. 

The origins of the contract date back to 1997, when the BBLA and the Czech Republic began negotiations over cooperation on renovation of the Bohemian National Hall. The solution was to transfer ownership of the building to the Czech Republic for $1 and have the Czech Republic assume responsibility for renovation of the entire building and provide rent-free use of one floor to the associations of the umbrella organization of BBLA. The State Attorney General approved the contract in June 2001, and the Supreme Court of New York State gave the consent to the sale in November 2001. 

The initial restoration of the building façade was carried out in the 1990s under the direction of Czech-American preservation architect Jan Hird Pokorny, who was also instrumental in the building's designation as a New York City landmark in 1994.  A state-of-the-art performance space was first completed on the third floor, followed by the restoration of the elegant 1890s ballroom and auditorium on the fourth floor and completion of the other spaces occupied by Czech Government entities including the offices of the Consulate General and the Czech Center.                            

The BBLA uses the entire third floor, which includes the performance space/gallery and Dvořák Room. Located in other areas of the building are the Czech Center exhibition space, a cinema, and a Czech restaurant. Since the Grand Opening of the renovated building in November 2008, the Bohemian National Hall has became a truly common space for organizing events and meetings of Czechs living in America and their countrymen back home.