New York Architecture Images-Upper East Side

Bohemian National Hall (Narodni Budova)


William C. Frohne


321 East 73rd, bet. First and Second Aves.


1895 and 1897


Renaissance Revival




Office Building






Bohemia returns to the Big Apple

Manhattan's Narodni budova, a long-abandoned center of Czech life, gets a $10 million makeover

Built in 1895, the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side is a gorgeous building, but for years its interior has been dilapidated.
By Amy C. Sims
For The Prague Post
(August 21, 2003)

With its ritzy shops, nannies and prissy little dogs, the Upper East Side of Manhattan is known as a haunt of the wealthy. But in the late 19th century, it was a mecca for thousands of Czech and Slovak immigrants looking for a new start.

The emigres raised enough money to build a grand social hall known as Narodni budova. From heated political discussions, to firing practice in the shooting gallery, to weddings in the ballroom, to the sounds of the new generations learning the Czech language in classrooms, it bustled with life.

But the dancing stopped behind the ornate Renaissance-inspired façade a long time ago. The building sits empty now, save for a construction crew busily reconstructing its innards.

"It was always sort of a showroom for the Czech existence."

Ales Pospisil,
consul general

Built in 1895 and 1897 as a place where Czechs could gather, the Bohemian National Hall is getting a $10 million (2.8 billion Kc) overhaul. The work, set for completion in 2005, is being done by the Czech company PSJ Holding and the U.S. firm Vanguard Construction. The architect is Czech-American Martin Holub.

The groundbreaking took place in May, and, despite a short interruption for asbestos removal, work is on schedule.

The reconstructed five-story building on East 73rd Street will house the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, the Czech Center, the Czech Consulate General, a Czech restaurant, an art gallery, a library, a screening room, a ballroom and a rooftop terrace.

Salad days

At the time of Narodni budova's construction, New York City was home to more than 50 Czech organizations. The groups built a gathering place because they didn't have anywhere to hold events, except "in the back rooms of old restaurants or maybe in the cellar of a church, all very inadequate and undignified," explained Jan Pokorny, a Czech-born architect and president of the Benevolent Association.

1895 Bohemian National Hall built

1986 Declared unfit for occupancy

July 1994 Named a New York City landmark by the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission

Dec. 7, 2001 Czech Republic buys building from the Benevolent Association for $1

Spring-fall 2002 Architect chosen, plans for renovation drawn up and approved by various authorities, and tender held for general contractor and subcontractor

Dec. 2002 PSJ Holding, a Czech construction company, wins tender

March 7, 2003 Renovation work begins

June 2004 (projected) Renovation of building's core completed

July-Dec. 2004 (projected) The building opens for partial use by Benevolent Association

Spring 2005 (projected) Czech Government offices occupy additional floors

End of 2005 (projected) Entire building opens

"The heydays of the building were in the first half of the 20th century," according to Ales Pospisil, consul general of the Czech Republic in New York. "It was always sort of a showroom for the Czech existence in the United States. It was the main property on [the] East Coast, where all Czech-Americans gathered. It served its purpose 365 days a year and it was a very lively place."

The real gem of the building is the ballroom, Pospisil said. It can host about 800 people, and the reconstruction will restore its original appearance, unlike the rest of the interior, which will be demolished and rebuilt. Pokorny said the huge ballroom had a stage and was originally used for Czech weddings, dances, theater productions and a singing group. It was also the venue for appearances by first Czechoslovakian President Tomas G. Masaryk and his son, Jan, who served as the country's foreign minister.

Changing times

Although Pospisil estimates that about 40,000 Czechs lived in New York before and shortly after World War II, he said the third and fourth generations had different interests and felt less need to stick together. Events decreased and attendance dwindled at the Bohemian National Hall. There was no longer enough money to maintain the building, so space was leased to outsiders such as the Manhattan Theatre Club.

This agreement brought more than rent: It staged the debut of Liza Minelli, who performed at the theater. "She came to take a look at the building many years later to see where the dressing room was and where she first performed, and she burst into tears," Pokorny said.

In 1940 Pokorny moved to America. At that point, the building "was going quite well," he recalled. "It had a bowling alley, and a shooting gallery was next to it. ... There were weddings and performances in the ballroom. ... It was a busy place; it was jumping."

But the building was growing shabby for lack of money, he said, and the Benevolent Association decided to lease it to a developer or an organization with the agreement that the group would keep a floor. The theater company tried to purchase the building, but talks failed, resulting in a lawsuit that lasted several years, Pokorny said.
The two-story Great Hall will be restored to its original grandeur.

The Czechs negotiated with hospitals, churches and different organizations, but those talks dragged on due to disagreements among the Czechs.

But then, Pokorny said, "The Czech ambassador to the UN suggested to me, 'Why doesn't the Czech Republic purchase the building and give you one floor, and you would sell it to the Republic for one ceremonial dollar and [the government would] restore the building?' It sounded like a very good deal and in fact is the deal that prevailed."

In 2001, the Czech government bought the hall from the association. The group will keep the third floor, which will have a small meeting room and a conference room, to be called the Dvorak room, which will feature a collection of Dvorak memorabilia. (According to Pokorny, Dvorak played an indirect role in helping to create the building: The Benevolent Association threw a party in his honor to raise funds for the effort, and it yielded between $10,000 and $20,000, he said.)

Back to life

"It will be a lively place to show the rich culture and history of Czechs," said Premysl Pela, director of the Czech Center, a future tenant. The nonprofit Czech Center was founded in 1996 to promote the Czech Republic in the United States. The center organizes programs and cultural events like film screenings and art exhibitions and provides information on the Czech Republic to the general public, students, tourists and scholars.

Pela said the reconstructed building will help strengthen ties between the Czech Republic and the United States, adding, "The Czech government is increasingly realizing that the Czech Republic needs to promote itself here in the United States."

Later Czech generations have not been as involved in Czech-American affairs as older generations, Pela acknowledged, but he said he's been astonished by the number of Czech-Americans in their 30s who have attended recent events thrown by the center, and he predicted the new building will foster that enthusiasm.

And despite its rich history, the national hall cannot serve only as it served before World War II, purely for the activities of Czech-Americans, Pospisil said.

"We have to prepare programs that will attract all Americans, especially those who don't know much about Czech Republic," he said. "Maybe after a visit they will buy an air ticket and come to the Czech Republic as a tourist or as a businessman. This is the rationale for the building -- to bring people in."

Amy C. Sims can be reached at 
The Czech Republic will in the coming years be showcased at a new location in one of the world's most important cities - New York. As I discovered on a recent trip there, the Czech consulate general and the Czech Center will move from Madison Avenue to the historic Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side, which is currently being renovated.

In New York City big things stand out, so promoting a small country like the Czech Republic can be more of a challenge here than in many other places. But by 2005 the Czech Republic plans to dress itself up in Manhattan in a big way. The Czech government is currently renovating the Bohemian National Hall on the city's elegant Upper East Side, and the building will become the number one showcase for the Czech Republic in the United States, housing the Czech consulate general, the Czech Center and Czech-American foundations. Premysl Pela is the director of the Czech Center in New York:

"It should really be the centre of Czech social and cultural life, a shop window of the Czech Republic here. And we really would like to see it is a point of focus not only for the Czech American community, of course, but for Americans, because the Czech Center is here for the American public."
The Bohemian National Hall was constructed between 1895 to 1897 in a part of Manhattan that became known as Little Bohemia, after the Czech community that lived there. Until recently the building was owned by the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, but in 2001 ownership was transferred to the Czech Republic for the symbolic fee of one dollar. The Czech government has, in return, committed itself to spending some eight million dollars to renovate the building, which will house not only the Czech consulate general but many other things, too. Premysl Pela again:
"It will not be, and it should not serve, as a government building, as an embassy. It should be a very open building. It should have a movie theatre, a multipurpose hall for balls and conferences, and we hope to have a restaurant, a cafe. So it should be a very lively place, and it should offer the best that the Czech Republic has."
Renovations on the Bohemian National Hall began early in March, and it is expected that the building will be opened to the public in the spring of 2005. And while the area known as Little Bohemia no longer has the lively Czech community that it used to, the historic Bohemian National Hall will once again make it a vibrant centre for Czech life in New York City.
  On December 7, 2001 at 2 pm, ownership of the Bohemian Nationall Hall was transferred to the Czech Republic according to the contract between the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association (BBLA) and the Czech Republic, signed on January 31, 2001.
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 only feasible solution appeared to be the transfer of ownership of the building to the Czech Republic and the consequent commitment of the CR to renovate the entire building and give a rent-free use of one floor to the associations of the umbrella organization of BBLA. NYS Attorney General approved the contract on June 14, 2001 and the Supreme Court of the New York State gave the consent to the sale in November 2001.
The Czech Republic is aware of the great responsibility it assumed as it took over the property built in the years 1895-1897 from the funds of Czech-American associations and, until recently, held and managed by the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.
To emphasize the link with the Czech Republic the building will host offices of the Consulate General and the Czech Center. The BBLA will use the entire third floor and Czech-American foundations, exhibitions, museums and a Czech restaurant will be located in other areas of the building. After renovation, expected to be finished in the 2004/2005, the Bohemian National Hall will become a truly common space for organizing events and meetings of Czechs living in America and their countrymen back home.

From:           	"John Krondl" 

To:             	"Olga Krupauerova" 
       	"Cultural section, Czech Embassy" 
       	"Petr Gandalovic" 
       	"Carl Hodek" 
       	"Josef Schrabal" 

Subject:        	Press Release
Date sent:      	Thu, 28 Sep 2000 14:55:56 -0400

I am attaching a Press Release concerning the latest developments around
the Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan, NY. I am available for further

John Krondl,
Ceskoslovenske noviny, New York

On September 7, 2000 the New York State Assistant Attorney General Sandra Giorno-Tocco representing the Charities Bureau turned down the Contract between the Czech Republic and the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association (BBLA) concerning the transfer of the Bohemian National Hall to the Czech Republic for $1 and subsequent Lease conditions of one floor back to the BBLA. The main reasons for her decision, as expressed in her evalutation, are:

a) The Contract contains unreasonable conditions under which BBLA could gain the Hall back, in case the Czech Republic either does not complete its restoration on time, or it decides to sell the building. The attorney general questioned whether other avenues of cooperation were first pursued - specifically asking the Czech Government to substantiate its position that taking over the Hall was the only way it was able and willing to help.

b) The Contract violates civil liberties of the BBLA by asking it to subject itself to so-called "Performance Standards" imposed by the Czech Republic. She remarked that some of these conditions even violate the BBLA's Statement of Incorporation. [For example, the requirement that BBLA should devote itself "predominantly to promoting Czech-American relations" does not meet the "Czech & Slovak" legal description of BBLA.]

Due to the above reasons, she recommended that the Contract is changed and undergoes new approval by the BBLA member organizations.

In plain language, the Contract did not make it through the first round - the evaluation by the Charitites Bureau - and therefore will not be even considered by the Supreme Court of New York.

The undersigned three members of BBLA came to the conclusion that the situation calls for a more open approach on both sides. They also strongly feel that the Attorney General's evaluation, while it objectively analyzes the Contract and rightfully pinpoints its flaws, does not and cannot address the root of the problem -- which is the way the bad Contract was shepherded through BBLA by its long-time leadership, namely its president, Mr. Jan Hird Pokorny. Therefore, on September 25, 2000 they filed a law-suit against BBLA and Jan Hird Pokorny. The main points of their complaint are:

a) Mr. Pokorny failed to stop the controversial Contract right at his own doorstep, although he must have been well aware of its controversy. On the contrary, he recommended it to the BBLA member organizations for their approval, at one point even falsely speaking on behalf of the entire Negotiating Committee. Not only that he did not follow up with the member organizations to make sure that they reviewed and discussed the last version of the Contract in a proper manner, but he even ignored clear signals from some delegates that their organizations had not done so.

b) In general, over the years, Mr. Pokorny failed to lead BBLA towards activity, self-reliance and rejuvenation of its leadership by monitoring the member organizations' activities.

By his approach, Mr. Pokorny brought BBLA into a situation in which the New York Assistant Attorney General had to step in for a rescue, in order to defend the organizations' interests, because they were not able to defend them themselves.


On September 27, 2000 an emergency meeting of the BBLA's Board of Directors took place in the National Hall. BBLA lawyers announced that the Czech government -- only after it was faced with the Attorney General's rejection of the Contract -- agreed to remove the "Performance Standards" and also offered a low-interest loan to BBLA to buy the Hall back, in case the government wants to sell it. No relief, however, was offered in case the government does not complete the reconstruction on time (when BBLA would also have a right to ask for it back).

The Czech Consul General, Petr Gandalovic attended the second half of the meeting. He stressed his concern that the prepared new version of the Contract would be properly "distributed to all member organizations" and "approved according to their by-laws", so that the delegates have a "clear mandate". When directly asked by the undersigned, he was unable to come up with an explanation to the Attorney General's question why "an outright sale to the Republic was the only transaction possible with the Republic".



"It is not true that all is bad and everything is lost and has to be smitten away by some kind of a storm. The exact opposite is true: in this society, there is a huge potential of good will, creativity, dilligence, kindness and desire for a better human environment. The goal is to release this potential, open a space for it, encourage it. That is the task of politicians, but not just theirs. It is the task of all publicly active people, all people in positions of responsibility, and, after all, all of us, the citizens of the Czech Republic who mean well for our country."

Václav Havel in the New Year's Address 2000

The undersigned strongly emphasize, that -- the BBLA's shortcomings notwithstanding -- the brunt of responsibility for the current situation lies with the Czech government, because it is, by far, the stronger of the two partners. The fact is that the Czech government's position is so strong that it can largely influence the solution to the National Hall's resurrection. The government can offer the community a helping hand and lead it towards increased activity, self-reliance and competence, or it can extend a greedy hand and lead the community towards increased passivity, dependence and decline.

We believe that "The role of the government is to help people help themselves." That is basically what the above Václav Havel's statement also says. If we, the compatriot community, are a part of the Czech nation, then the Czech government should help us to become a living, healthy and functional part of the nation.

The currently proposed solution which puts the compatriot community into a totally passive, dependent and subservient role to the Czech government, however, cannot be termed as a "cooperation".

Therefore, we have to look for a better solution, such one that will put the community back on its feet and help it become an active and functional part of the nation. And, with God's help, we believe that we will find it.

Frank Kubernat, the Sokol New York delegate to BBLA
Peter Kutil, the Association of Free Czechoslovak Sportsmen delegate to BBLA and BBLA's vice-president
John Krondl, the delegate of the American-Czechoslovak Information Center to BBLA