It looks like any other East Village apartment building now, but over a century ago, 533 East Fifth Street, between Avenues A and B, was the site of what may have been the city’s first Bohemian National Hall. At the time, Czech and Slovak immigrants were so concentrated along Avenue B, between Houston Street and Tompkins Square Park, that it was called “Czech Boulevard.”
This Slavic community flourished until the end of the 19th century, when its residents started migrating to the Bronx, Astoria and the Upper East Side. They abandoned the East Village with little evidence to show for their existence, ceding the neighborhood to Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians.
But before they left, the Bohemian National Hall, or Narodní Budova, was typical of public halls in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the city. It was brimming with life and the base for several Czech and Slovak social clubs and hosted literary and union meetings, concerts, balls, and language classes. For Czech and Slovak immigrants of the time, it was a home away from home.
The hall was in a tenement building, one of 13 pre-law tenements that went up more than 150 years ago on the block owned by William B. Astor. Although the exact date of construction is unknown, the five-story National Hall would have looked much like the tenement next door at 531 East Fifth Street, which currently houses the Ace Bar. That Italianate structure was built between 1860 and 1861.
The old National Hall would have been built around the same time, but the building was either torn down and rebuilt, or it had a major alteration in 1899, according to building records. In the construction, another story was added by architect Nathan Langer.
Langer designed 533 in the Queen Anne style, mixing Renaissance revival and Baroque motifs, which explains the delicate lace-like details that line the building and the window’s lattices. The facade is also, surprisingly, decorated with 13 bearded stone faces that sit atop its four window arches on every other floor—the only one of its kind on the block. The largest of the gentlemen hangs over the door, guarding with wide eyes and mouth agape. Maybe Langer had Prague’s Gothic gargoyles in mind while he was re-designing.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, and the over-investment in America’s new railroad system that followed, the national economy suffered, setting off the Panic of 1873, which lasted until 1877. It was called the Great Depression before the 1930s set the new standard in collective misery.
In February 1874, a cascade of headlines—“Scenes of Starvation,” “Tenement House Wretchedness,” “A Day in the City’s Pauperized Thousands”—announced an article in the New York Daily Herald that described both the squalor and resilience that a reporter encountered during a tour of various wards. “So ripe is poverty and crime,” he summarized. He described the East Village, then the 17th ward, as enjoying “the proud pre-eminence of being the most thickly populated spot in the United States, and probably in the world.” He cited recent census data that showed 6,720 people living on the single block between Fourth and Fifth Street on First Avenue, mostly Germans, Bohemians and Swedes. Despite the poverty, the local police precinct captain told the reporter that the local residents were of “the highest character.” Their rooms may not have carpet but “the floors are scrubbed until one could eat off them. The people are poor, but forehanded, comfortably clad and they live well. There is very little misery among them. They have saved for the rainy day, and manage, in spite of hard times, to get along very well and look the future in the face hopefully.”
Further down Fifth Street, between avenues A and B, the reporter stopped in at a “representative Bohemian” saloon near the Narodní Budova, which he described without its name as a large hall with “eight flourishing Bohemian societies.” Inside were a Turner gymnastics club and two Czech language schools. “By the way,” the reporter incorrectly noted, “this startling word is pronounced Chesh.”
Cigar-making was the major occupation of the Czechs and Slovaks, the reporter said, noting that 800 of them were on strike at the time. Their job action followed a riot of 7,000 workers—the largest to date in New York City—that broke out in Tompkins Square Park a month earlier in a protest of the poor economic conditions of the day.
In the years to come, Czech cigar makers, sometimes spelled sigar back then, demonstrated repeatedly to protest their long hours and low wages. In 1881, for example, the Cigarmakers’ Union 444 met at Bohemian Hall to work on strengthening the union. At a meeting in 1883, the union demanded the governor sign the Tenement Bill, which would ban cigar-making in tenement buildings. The bill “denounced the system of manufacturing cigars in tenements as productive of disease and death, the cause of overcrowding, of vitiated air and contagion.”
Jacob Riis describes the cigar tenements around Fifth Street in How the Other Half Lives, along with the harsh conditions under which so many Bohemians worked.
Chicago’s infamous Haymarket Riots broke out on May 4, 1886 during a worker’s strike that brought 80,000 people into the city’s streets in a spectacle that became one of the world’s first May Day parades. A couple days later, police shot at several rock-throwing strikers, sparking a “revenge” protest the next day in the Haymarket. As police gathered to disperse the crowd, someone lobbed a bomb, killing seven police officers and at least four protesters. Authorities identified the perpetrators as anarchists and German-speaking Bohemians.
Within three weeks, the Bohemians of New York responded by creating an anti-anarchist society to show their patriotism. The Bohemian Hall hosted the meeting, attended by some 500 Czechs and Slovaks, bent on “crushing the anarchists.” Half a dozen anarchists crashed the meeting and tried to wrest control of the proceedings, but as an anarchist tried to take the chair, “he was assisted to the floor,” the New York Tribune reported. The anarchists left the hall but came back later with reinforcements, about 30 in all. But a dozen cops scared them away.
J.F. Vosatka, who presided over the meeting and was voted president of the Anti-Anarchists, said at the time:
A few of our nationality are anarchists, and as we know they are misleading our people in the city, who number about 25,000, we started this anti-anarchy movement. We are all citizens of the country, and as we find our adopted country better than the one we left, our duty is to work with all our power against all lawlessness, and do our best to put down anarchism among our members, stand by our flag, and be obedient citizens.
Clinging to traditions from their homeland, in the late 1800s “Czech Boulevard” had its own Czech and Slovak speciality shops, saloons, eateries and bakeries, all clustered on a handful of streets that ran across Avenue B. Thomas Capek describes the area in the book The Čech Bohemian Community of New York, published in 1921. He writes that in the 1870s and 1880s, his countrymen would hang out at Tompkins Square Park: “their favorite rendezvous, they called the White Garden from the whiteness of the asphalt.” Capek describes the blocks between Third and Fifth streets as the densest concentration and says, “but a few were bold enough to penetrate the unknown regions west of Avenue A, ‘where strangers lived’.”
This makes sense considering the classified advertisements of microfilm archives of “New Yorksé Listy,” the Bohemian language newspaper that served the community beginning in 1875. The newspaper is self-proclaimed as “the oldest and the most popular Bohemian Paper in the East.” Many local restaurants and shops that advertised were located around Third and Fifth street, with some reaching out to First Avenue.
Several ads in newspapers from October 1889 give a glimpse into what the streets and storefronts might have looked like back then. Just a few doors down from the Bohemian Hall, Jana Cerela advertised a “Český Hostinec,” or Czech restaurant with fresh, hot food at 529 East Fifth Street. Another, larger ad showed Karel Wancl’s Czech hostinec at 525 East Fifth Street, featuring hot food, a student’s menu and lager from Plžen, Czechoslovakia (the origin of the pilsner beer). At 50 Avenue B was Josef Pipota’s wine bar. And down at 122 East Third Street was J. Heisler’s book store, complete with Czech books and calendars for the upcoming new year of 1890.
A livelier ad announced a theater showing of “Peasant Zlatodvorsky” on Oct. 6 and also a ball after the show. Tickets cost 25 cents for adults, which was about $7 in those days, and 10 cents for children. In the ad, men were asked to please refrain from smoking during the show. Another ad below it publicized a celebratory feast hosted at the hall for the ninth anniversary of a choir. Entrance for a man and a woman was 25 cents, and an extra 15 cents to add another woman.
Another ad in the New York Herald, in 1892, announced the winners of the annual boxing entertainment of the Olympian Athletic Club held at the Bohemian National Hall.
These old newspaper classifieds show how vibrant the community used to be. If a Czech or Slovak lived and worked in the neighborhood, it seems like there would hardly be any reason to leave. But eventually, the Bohemians did leave.
By 1889, some of the Czechs and Slovaks in the community had already begun to migrate up to Yorkville to the streets in the 70s and 80s on the Upper East Side, which is also reflected in some of the advertisements.
Whether because the Bohemians outgrew their hall, as some articles suggested, or because cigar factories moved uptown and factory workers followed, by 1897, a brand new hall was built at 321 East 72nd Street. Today, that hall still survives with a Czech restaurant on the bottom floor, serving the famous Plžen pilsner. On other floors there are several Czech societies, including a Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Society, and a theater to put on Czech plays. The building also has offices for the Czech consulate of New York, and a Czech cultural center. On the street behind the hall is a Czech Protestant church, the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1888 — Hus was a heretic against the Catholic Church and was burned at the stake in the 15th century.
During the Prague Spring in 1968, almost a hundred years after Czechs moved to the Upper East Side, Václav Havel, the dissident writer who would eventually become the first president of the Czech Republic, visited New York for the first time. He loved the East Village, which he strolled with the Czech director Milos Forman, who lived in New York at the time. Havel admired the neighborhood’s hippies, artists, and other unconventionals. Maybe he passed by the ghosts of that other kind of Bohemian who had lived and worked and played near the 533 East Fifth Street of a hundred years before.