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Bohemian Hall and Park: A Traditional Cultural Property in New York City

Molly Garfinkel
Director, Place Matters, Citylore

 

Executive Summary

Astoria’s Bohemian Hall is emblematic of so many New York City places that nurture community traditions, belief systems, social networks, arts and customs. Bohemian Hall and Park has been continuously owned and operated by members of the Czech-American community, and has served as a social, cultural, and educational hub for New York City’s Czech-American residents since it was founded in 1911. But as is the case with so many local landmarks, Bohemian Hall is stylistically unremarkable and has been changed over time to accommodate its ongoing use. In 2000, Place Matters successfully nominated Bohemian Hall to the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP). TCP criteria were released in 1990, in National Register Bulletin 38, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties, as a means of expanding the range of types of sites that could be considered eligible for the National Register. Designation on the National Register as a TCP suggests a living site—a place that continues to play a role in fostering a sense of community and cultural heritage. Rather than being assigned a defined, historical period of significance, a TCP’s significance extends to the present. However, TCP criteria are rarely invoked because they are somewhat obscure within the National Register system. In fact, Bohemian Hall is one of the few non-Native American places in the United States that has been designated as a TCP.

Bohemian Hall in Astoria was the nation’s first site listed in the National Register as a Traditional Cultural Property. Photo courtesy of Place Matters.

Place Matters explicitly used memory and continuing use as a rationale for the listing. Because the building had changed over time, it would typically be said by preservation agencies to have lost its architectural integrity and to be unworthy of protection. But Place Matters was able to make use of the relatively new federal TCP guidelines, and to make the case that the changes were made to sustain the cultural use of the place over time. If the outside picnic park and auditorium had not changed, Bohemian Hall and Park would not have continued to support the culture that blossomed there.

Without knowledge and acceptance of TCP criteria, New York State’s Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) might well have overlooked Bohemian Hall as a candidate for Traditional Cultural Property designation on the National Register. Without Place Matters’ connections to (and deep insights and enthusiastic collaboration from) New York’s Czech-American community, an argument for Bohemian Hall’s status as a TCP could not have been argued convincingly. But in 1999, broad-minded SHPO leaders reached out to the Place Matters program to propose culturally significant "non-traditional” New York City properties to the National Register. The subsequent SHPO-Place Matters collaboration generated three successful state (December 2000) and national-level (March 2001) property designations, one of which, Bohemian Hall, was listed as a TCP—the first ever from New York City.

 

Place Matters’ Approach to Community Places

Place Matters is a joint initiative of the Municipal Art Society and City Lore, New York City’s center for urban folk life. Founded in 1893, the Municipal Art Society continues to serve as one of New York City’s premiere advocates for intelligent urban design, planning and preservation. City Lore was founded in 1986 with a mission to foster New York City - and America's - living cultural heritage through education and public programs. City Lore documents, presents, and advocates for New York City's grassroots cultures to ensure their living legacy in stories and histories, places and traditions. In 1988, City Lore established the "Endangered Spaces” project to identify and advocate for local establishments that were disappearing from the New York City landscape. In part, the rapid diminution of community loci, including ethnic social clubs like Bohemian Hall, resulted from the fact that these sites were difficult to for preservationists to interpret, and therefore to protect.

In 1996, City Lore and the Municipal Art Society formed a Task Force on Historical and Cultural Landmarks, and collaborated on a conference called "History Happened Here,” which was held at the Museum of the City of New York. Two years later, City Lore and the Municipal Art Society jointly established the Place Matters program so as to continue to celebrating and advocating for places that hold memories, anchor traditions and help to tell the history of New York City. The goal of Place Matters is to broaden the ways preservation is understood and practiced in New York City by offering alternative ways of identifying, celebrating, and ultimately preserving places that matter. The initiative has introduced preservationists and community activists on the local and national scenes to a new way of thinking about the role of place in public life, and a new appreciation for the ways in which non-experts can identify and sustain places in their local landscapes that embody a broader historical record and keep communities healthy and vibrant. Primarily, Place Matters works with sites that the public finds significant. Place Matters uses a variety of methodologies to study place, including oral history, history, and building and architectural research. But the program’s decidedly ethnographic bent facilitates documentation and advocacy that reflects the perspectives of the people who create and care for their community places. It also puts into practice historian Michael Frisch’s notion of "shared authority,” which calls for the sharing of power between "professional” scholars and members of the public when explaining the past and deciding on a meaning.

 

Designation of Bohemian Hall and Park—A Confluence of Ideal Circumstances

Bohemian Hall’s designation as a Traditional Cultural Property provides a model for best practices in integrated approaches to preservation, but those who participated in the nomination process admit that the effective partnership between historic preservationists and folklorists was facilitated by a confluence of ideal circumstances. In 1999, SHPO launched the "Millennium Initiative,” a proactive nomination program that included outreach to communities that were not well represented on the State or National Registers. SHPO staff worked with Place Matters to document and nominate three New York City sites that respectively represented the histories of Puerto Ricans, Mohawk Native Americans, and Czech-Americans in New York. Former SHPO New York City representative Kathy Howe, and Place Matters’ co-founder and former co-director Laura Hansen, collaborated on the successful Bohemian Hall nomination. Howe and Hansen had known each other professionally for several years before the Millennium Initiative was introduced, so Howe was already predisposed to Place Matters’ mission and philosophy. Participants recall that Howe’s keen interest in (sympathy for?) culturally significant sites, as well as her National Register expertise, were indispensible for drafting the final report. Hansen, a progressive preservationist with a natural affinity for folklore, conducted an extensive research campaign that included recording over a dozen interviews with of members of the living Czech community. Their testimonies were essential for demonstrating Bohemian Hall’s long-standing significance and suitability for listing as a Traditional Cultural Property. Their very willingness to participate in the project was aided substantially by the relationship that City Lore had cultivated with the Czech-American community through the Endangered Spaces and Place Matters projects.

 

History of New York City’s Czech-American Communities

Ethnic enclaves still exist in New York City, but the first of real proportion in New York was initiated in the 1840s, when a massive influx of German immigrants settled in lower Manhattan along the East River, in what was then known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. This was one of the first places in the United States where the local community was connected by nationality, religion, culture and race, and socialized, politicked, traded and prayed in a common foreign language on a daily basis. The Germans developed their own social networks and organizations like fraternal societies, special German salons, choral and theatrical societies, and various kinds of clubs.

Czech immigration to the United States, and particularly New York City, is documented as early as 1643, but does not begin in any substantial number until after 1848, the year of revolution across Eastern Europe. At the time, Czechs, along with many other Slavic peoples, lived under the rule of the Hapsburg Monarchy in an area known as Bohemia within Austria-Hungary. Bohemians (who later identified as Czech and Slovak) came to New York City in the 1860s and 1870s, and many settled among the Germans in Kleindeutschland, along Avenue A between 1st and 8th Streets, which was then known as "Czech Boulevard.” By 1900 New York City’s Bohemian colony thrived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In the 1860s, the Germans moved uptown to what became known as Yorkville (York Avenue to 3rdAvenue between 61st and 75th Streets), and the Czechs joined them in the 1880s. Czechs settled with the Germans for many reasons, including common language and way of life, but they weren’t the only ones who sought the familiar. Little Italys, Chinatowns and all sorts of other ethnic enclaves began to spring up elsewhere in the city and country, as neighbors formed organizations to help one another cope with separating from the home country and adapt to life in this new one.

Czech enclaves were particularly noted for having language schools and cultural activities. In New York they started schools in Yorkville, which hosted a vibrant Czech enclave until the 1950s, but Czechs also began to establish themselves in Astoria and Winfield in Queens beginning in the 1920s. Both Astoria and Winfield had Bohemian Halls that hosted traditional Sokol gymnastics clubs, Czech schools and beer gardens. Shortly thereafter, political upheavals forced several substantial waves of Czechs to immigrate to the United States. Although each surge of Czech migrants may not have initially settled in Astoria, they eventually gravitated there, reviving the Czech population in 1938 (Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia), 1948 (the Communist coup d’etat), 1968 (the Soviet Union invasion and crackdown on liberalizations [the "Prague Spring”]) and 1989 (the end of Communist rule [the "Velvet Revolution”]). In 1962, Manhattan’s Yorkville Hall was sold, and by 1999, active members of the Czech community favored Astoria’s Bohemian Hall, where four Sokol clubs met and/or used the gym facility. Astoria’s Bohemian Hall also offered the last beer garden that dated from the time when there had been over 800 scattered throughout New York City.


Bohemian Hall’s historic beer garden. Photo courtesy of Place Matters.

 

Community Participation in the Nomination Process

Laura Hansen’s preliminary background research for the National Register nomination proved what many people already knew—Bohemian Hall had a compelling site history. Conventional resources like maps, city building and property records, city directories, immigration and death certificates and newspaper articles revealed that in 1906, Frank A. Sovak and Annie Sovak of Manhattan, and the Bohemian Benevolent Society of Astoria, Long Island, New York, bought three lots along 24th Avenue in Astoria. The property, which measures 75 feet by 100 feet, contains three main architectural elements. The Hall, a two-story, Neo-Classical Revival style brick building with limestone trim, was completed on March 2, 1911. In 1914, the Hall was extended to the rear of the 100-foot lot to provide a large auditorium space for Sokol (traditional Czech gymnastics), amateur theatricals and other performances. The Hall also features meeting rooms and rooms used for choral and dance practice. A one-story bar and restaurant building was also added in 1914. Together, these building cover the entire 75-foot frontage along 24th Avenue. Adjacent open lots were used informally until the early 1930s, when several families donated them to the BCBS. At that time, the Society erected the still-extant rock-faced concrete block wall, and formally transformed the outdoor space into the third critical element—a beer garden. Elm and Linden trees, the latter of which is the national tree of the Czech Republic, were planted beginning in the 1950s.

Over the years, the Hall’s meeting rooms have been used by various lodges and Sokol clubs. Bohemain Hall has also been used as a "hall for hire” for various organizations and communities, which rent it as a performance and special event space. The nomination report notes that since the mid-twentieth century, "Italians, Hungarians, South American, Cypriot and many other groups have held regular communal events there, while a Greek senior center and the Emerald Society of Irish policemen are among the local organizations that rely on the hall for meeting space.”

While conducting research, Hansen recognized that it would be easy enough to make an argument for the site’s significance to Bohemian immigrants in the 19th century and Czech immigrants who arrived in the United States until 1950—the fifty-year cut-off date for listing on the National Register. However, it was clear from the onset that the site’s history wasn’t enough to explain why this place still mattered. According to Hansen, "to understand the significance of Bohemian Hall, you had to understand that the history was ongoing, beyond 1950, and it didn’t stop.”

Thanks to City Lore’s long-standing relationship with Bohemian Hall, Hansen was able to collect oral histories from nearly a dozen community members. "They brought the story to life in a way that library or other kinds of documentary sources just don’t,” she says. "And that’s when it was clear that we needed to ask the National Register to designate this as a Traditional Cultural Property. To recognize officially that the customs that have been going on here for close to a century, and which continue to the present day, are what makes this place significant.” Conserving the structure was important because the beer garden and performance hall fostered the use. However, ultimately, honoring the property’s use was equally important, if not primary.

Hansen’s ethnographic approach to documentation helped to demonstrate that Bohemian Hall was always much more than a gymnastics and drinking club. While the building’s architect is recorded as Frank Chmelik, older members remember the Society’s fundraising—at a penny a brick—and volunteer help from members who were masons, plumbers and electricians. A Czech phrase posted over the doorway reads "Cesky Domov,” which translates as "Czech Home.” From the very beginning, Astoria’s Bohemian Hall was a communal place where people gathered for theatricals, dinners, weddings, gymnastics, and to maintain traditional Czech culture. The National Register nomination report states, "Bohemian Hall is an authentically vital connection to New York’s Czech enclaves of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Its connection to this past fosters an understanding of how cultural groups assimilate while retaining and reshaping a cultural identity in a new environment. As the embodiment of the collective experience of several generations of Czech immigrants, and with most of its early traditions intact, Bohemian Hall and Park represent a kind of cultural continuity rare in New York City."


The courtyard of Bohemian Hall is used for performances and special events. Photo courtesy
of Place Matters.

Deborah Van Cura, a third generation Czech-American who was born and raised in Astoria, joined the BCBS Board of Directors in the early 1990s. Van Cura contributed time, energy, research and memories to the Bohemian Hall nomination process. As a director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Van Cura had already spent a great deal of time collecting stories about the neighborhood in general, and the Czech community in particular, and had researched and lectured on the history of beer gardens in the United States. Van Cura had also worked with City Lore on previous projects, and recommended Hansen to particular community members whose stories she thought would be most helpful for the nomination. Joseph Voves, former president of the BCBS, told Hansen about his terrifying 1959 escape from Czechoslovakia, and how he settled in New York City and found Astoria’s Bohemian Hall. Voves brought in many new community members, and in the 1990s, he led the BCBS and carried the Hall through a difficult financial period. Hansen believes that interviewees, including Voves, agreed to participate because Van Cura felt that Place Matters was well positioned to advocate for Bohemian Hall as a place that merited special recognition.

It wasn’t simply access to community members that made the nomination successful. Hansen says that her approach to collecting oral histories was based on her and Howe’s joint decision to nominate Bohemian Hall as a TCP. She notes, "We couldn’t have done it without those interviews. Because we were nominating [Bohemian Hall] as a TCP, we had to be in the mindset of thinking about continuity and tradition, and how the place evolved and what that meant physically for the space and for the people. If we had been doing a straight nomination, we would have done different kinds of research, and different kinds of interviews"

Hansen recalls that Howe also spent a significant amount of time getting to know the community. Indeed, by all accounts, Howe played an equally critical role in the nomination process. Howe was initially ambivalent about pursuing the seemingly unremarkable assemblage of buildings, but she was committed to working with sites that weren’t obvious candidates for the National Register, and Hansen’s and City Lore’s experience with Bohemian Hall offered a strong foundation for arguing the site’s importance as a TCP. Howe determined that Bohemian Hall was eligible for the State and National Registers, and encouraged Hansen to take an ethnographic approach to the nomination. She also spent a great deal of time editing the application narrative to reflect the TCP criteria.

 

Architecturally Accommodating Long-Standing Use

Bohemian Hall and Park are significant under National Register Criterion A for their association with events in the history of Czech and Slavic immigrants; for their association with ethnic heritage and the social history of New York City; and for their association with the history of recreation, as home to Sokol organizations for ninety years. The hall is architecturally significant under Criterion C, for embodying the distinctive characteristics of early twentieth century meeting hall design. The beer garden was important as the only surviving landscape design of its type in New York City.

However, the spaces had been altered several times during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1969 the Hall’s original tall windows, which leaked cold air during the winter, were replaced with smaller openings along the sides of the auditorium. An illustrated fire curtain (featuring a painting of a Bohemian castle) and wall mural were also removed due to severe water damage. The auditorium was altered again in 1986, when the stage was reduced from a full-length proscenium stage to a small, central stage flanked by gym locker and equipment storage spaces. The changed was made because theatricals were no longer part of the regular program, and Sokol activities were by then the main use of the auditorium. The National Register nomination form notes, "they were in need of more space particular to their needs.” It was Howe who suggested Bulletin 38’s TCP criteria, so that the National Park Service would loosen its integrity standards and focus instead on Bohemian Hall’s long-standing use. At the time of the Millennium Initiative, the original floor plan was legible, and the original staircase and floor and window moldings were still intact, which encouraged both the Architectural Review Board and the National Park Service to accept the nomination.

If you were to tell the immigrant history of New York City, this would be a prime site. These kinds of spaces were common when Bohemian Hall was built, but by 2000 it was a rare example. This is certainly a place where "history happened.” However, here history is ongoing, which is true of all Traditional Cultural Properties, as well as other kinds of "places.” While there has been change to the building, and within the community, there has also been continuity. After the Czech Republic broke from the Soviet Union in 1989, a sokol team from Bohemian Hall visited Prague and got a standing ovation for having retained the gymnastic traditions that were not retained there.

 

Timing—Another Community Catalyst

Including Bohemian Hall in the National Register, the official place-based narrative of United States history, seemed all the more critical at the time that the Millennium Initiative was announced. Bohemian Hall, which had sustained Bohemian and Czech immigrants for nearly a century, was a struggling stalwart. In the early 1990s, BCBS was having difficulty recruiting new members, and the club faced a financial crisis that almost led to its foreclosure. Czechs still sent their children to Sokol and language school there, but the Czech community of Astoria had dwindled for the past several decades, and regular numbers had slumped as a result of friction between old timers and new comers who had migrated for different reasons and held different political beliefs. BCBS also struggled to pay property taxes on Bohemian Hall.

Van Cura claims that Bohemian Hall had been struggling for some time, but that the crisis was only brought into focus with the community in 1990. In the nomination report, Van Cura recounts the larger community’s reaction to an announcement about the financial threat to Bohemian Hall, "That was the first time the community had heard about it. Everyone thought it would just be there forever. At that meeting, in June 1990, there had to be between 75 and 100 people who came out, and I mean people from the community. They were not all Czech people. What had happened, the Bohemian Hall and Park had become more than just a building for Czechs. It had become a real community place with meaning and importance for Astoria."

Luckily, Bohemian Hall pulled itself back from the brink. Joseph Voves later recalled that, "the city put the knife to our throat. [They said] ‘pay or we are going to put you on auction.’ The BCBS considered selling the courtyard to developers, but Voves loaned his own savings to help cover back taxes. The Society, which had amended its by-laws in the 1980s to allow female members and people of Slovak background, redoubled its efforts to recruit new members. Van Cura also says that the park, which had not been open regularly to the public before the 1990s, was reimagined as a business. Bohemian Hall now offers its restaurant and beer garden for the enjoyment of all, and the net effect on the Hall and the Czech community has been positive. Van Cura says, "as more and more people started to use the beer garden, it started becoming a place that brought people together again. You started to see families at tables coming together, kids running around and baby carriages.” She says that once again guests of Eastern European origin are yelling at each other, discussing hotbed issues—in a good way.

The Society also reinstituted The Astorian, a local newsletter, which, in the early twentieth century, had been published monthly out of Long Island City. Hansen’s interviews with community members also revealed an important trend. During the nomination process Hansen spoke with several men who had arrived in New York in the 1970s. Each identified that his lack of involvement in Czech organizations, until after having been in the country for some time, was due to a necessary focus on making a living, raising a family, and a desire to avoid the intense political discussions and suspicions that characterized intergenerational relations in the 1970s and 1980s. The nomination report notes that, "while these men were slow to get involved, they eventually helped revive Bohemian Hall in the 1990s, when it was in the most trouble.”

If any place deserved recognition for rallying, it was Bohemian Hall. Similar institutions in other neighborhoods had not withstood the pressures associated with rising property taxes. Designation on the National Register could honor Bohemian Hall’s resilience, and it could provide an opportunity to apply for historic tax credits towards renovations. Van Cura says that while the honorific aspect of listing was enticing, the legal benefits of National Register designation were somewhat abstract. The BCBS never applied for the tax credits, and Hansen and Van Cura concede that while the designation was a boon, Astoria’s turn-of-the-millennium gentrification was probably the greatest contributing factor to Bohemian Hall’s survival. However, Van Cura confirms, "One of the things that [National Register designation] did, it said to the greater community that this place is important. It gave it some standing that, even though it’s a fun place, the Federal government says that it’s more. So that’s something that’s really important."

Hansen believes that timing played a major role in Bohemian Hall’s survival, as well as its successful designation. The hipsters had discovered it, and several years before, the Hall was not in good financial shape, which people knew about. Place Matters was trying to push a policy argument for cultural sites, but we also really wanted to help this place in particular. We were able to come back and work with them because Mr. Voves, Deb and the local civic groups were connected to the Hall and each other, and they wanted us to help. It could have gone the other way—it could have looked like interference. But they were open to Place Matters’ help. They understood the honorific aspect, and we were able to spend a lot of time with them. The Hall’s superintendence also changed several years after the property was nominated, and Hansen and Van Cura both suggest that the manager who was employed during the Millennium Initiative was very open to the idea of the designation process. They both say that the succeeding supervisor such would not likely have been as amendable to participation.

Hansen says that Bohemian Hall was an obvious choice for the Millennium Initiative "because it was more of a folkloric site. It deals with issues of time and accepting change, and understanding that significance changes over time.” She believes that it is unlikely that Bohemian Hall would have been designated to the National Register if she and Howe had not worked together to invoke Bulletin 38’s TCP criteria. Hansen writes, "These guidelines allowed the SHPO to evaluate Bohemian Hall’s significance from the perspective of its users—both that community’s historic origins as well as its present-day expression. The guidelines allowed the property’s integrity to be assessed within the framework of continuity of use."

 

Lessons Learned

Although Bohemian Hall faced no immediate threat by a construction or land-use project, the SHPO-Place Matters collaboration exemplified Bulletin 38’s recommendations for identifying and evaluating Traditional Cultural Properties. In regard to interdisciplinary fieldwork, Bulletin 38 states, "the professional standards appropriate to each kind of fieldwork should be adhered to, and appropriate expertise in each relevant discipline should be represented on the study team.” Howe was able to evaluate Bohemian Hall from the perspective of a professional preservationist, as well as from the point of view of the Hall’s users, because Place Matters’ relationship with the Czech-American community enabled Hansen’s ethnographic approach to the nomination process.

The precepts of Bulletin 38 provide a cultural perspective to the National Register’s standards of assessment that were probably critical to the Bohemian Hall and Park nomination’s success. Deriving significance from "the role the property plays in a community’s historically rooted beliefs, customs and practices;” evaluating integrity from within the context of use over time, and allowing that the period of significance extends beyond fifty years were all important factors for recognizing the importance of cultural expression as well as stylistic expression, integrity of tradition as well as structure, and continuity as well as history.



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