5 remnants of the old Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side

It’s been decades since Czech could routinely be heard on the streets. Restaurants like Praha and Vasata, heavy on the goose, duck, pork, and dumplings, are long defunct.

The Little Slovakia bar has vanished, and markets, bakeries, relief organizations, and travel agencies catering to Czech and Slovak immigrants closed their doors long ago.

Yet traces do exist of the former Czech neighborhood centered on East 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues. Created after waves of immigration in the late 19th century and then again in the 1940s, Little Czechoslovak once had a population of 40,000—with many finding work in local breweries (alongside their German neighbors in Yorkville) and cigar factories in the east 70s.

One of the oldest remnants stands on East 71st Street near First Avenue. This beige brick Renaissance-style structure opened in 1896, and its name is still carved into the facade: Cech Gymnastic Association. (Interesting side note: The architect is the same man who designed the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Place.)

The Gymnastic Association, or Sokol Hall, was an elegant community center. “Old photographs show a space full of gymnastic equipment, ringed by a great oak gallery and painted like a European concert hall—marbleized columns and elaborate stencil and decorative work on the walls,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1989.

“The hall was a centerpiece for the Czech community in New York, offering dinners, theatrical events, concerts, bazaars and a comfortable social club.” Sokol Hall still operates as a gym, though the restaurant (see the sign above in a photo from 1940) seem to have vanished.

All of New York’s former ethnic neighborhoods had their own funeral parlors, and Little Czech is no exception. John Krtil got its start in 1885, and it’s the only one that remains, on First Avenue at East 70th Street.

Immigrant enclaves always built churches. St. John Nepomucene Church is one that survives; it’s a stunningly beautiful Catholic church at First Avenue and East 66th Street. The parish was founded by Slovak immigrants in the East Village before relocating here in 1925, according to Slavs of New York.

Inside St. John’s recently, I met a parishioner who’d been going to this church since he was a child and recalled the huge congregation and holiday parties in the basement.

I’d passed the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church many times over the years and was eager to include it here. Completed in 1888, this Gothic Revival church on East 74th Street off First Avenue was one of the earliest houses of worship to serve the Bohemian community.

What a surprise to find it impossible to view behind heavy scaffolding! The church building was sold to the Church of the Epiphany, which is doing a heavy renovation. Jan Hus Church will be moving to 90th Street and First Avenue. (The photo above was shot before the building went into hiding; it’s from the Historic Districts Council.)

“The [Jan Hus] Church design evokes the streetscape of Prague with its distinctive Romanesque and Gothic Revival details, including a tower said to recall the entrance to Charles Bridge, which was added in 1915 as part of the expansion,” wrote Majda Kallab Whitaker, in a thoughtful farewell on the website for the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.

Luckily Bohemia National Hall is still with us. Completed in 1896, this stunning five-story building on East 73rd Street could be described as the heart of the neighborhood. “Since its beginning it has served as a focal point for its community, offering ethnic food, Czech language and history classes as well as space for its large community to meet and hold various events,” the Hall’s website states.

With its lion heads on the facade and beautiful arched upper windows, the Hall serves a new purpose these days. Owned by the Czech Republic since 2001, it’s the headquarters of the Czech consulate, according to the New York Times. It’s also the site of a restaurant, Bohemian Spirit, that serves the kind of Czech and Slovak food once dished out in the small cafes and eateries in the neighborhood,

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: Six to Celebrate/Historic Districts Council]

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31 Responses to “5 remnants of the old Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    What a beautiful entry into St. John Nepomucene church, I’d be scared to pray there, that’s for sure!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I love it though, and it lured me into the church, which is quite beautiful. And almost completely empty of people.

  2. gothamtony Says:

    Thank you for this. I remember the Czech restaurants and stores in Yorkville as recently as the Nineties.As you said we are lucky Bohemian National Hall is still with us. Its so easy to walk past places like this and take them for granted until one day they disappear and are just one more fading memory of youth.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you! The Upper East Side used to have many large and small ethnic neighborhoods…even German Yorkville is basically gone.

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    Another wonderful post, so well told and illustrated. You always share so much that I never knew about my home town. The photos of St John Nepomucene church are beautiful. A great website for NYC churches is nycago.org so I looked up this church there. The site’s focus is organs but they always have a short history of the churches and some old and new photos. Thanks!

  4. Andrew Porter Says:

    My mother was methodical about doing research on her own impending death, and determined that John Krtil offered the least expensive cremation services, if you didn’t want to have a funeral service there.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      These days the number of funeral homes in Manhattan is pretty low. I used to live on West 14th Street and always enjoyed Redden’s “home for funerals.” They disappeared 15 or so years back.

  5. Emily Ann Panchuk nee Puskar Says:

    This is where I lived many years ago. I miss the neighborhood. I am Slovak on both sides. I remember each memorial day we had a parade all along the area especially on second ave where I lived. I remember the Praha restaurant been there many times. I know the area.has changed but wish.i could relive the good old days again no more Slovak places to go to especially restaurants. Thanks again for all info brings back many memories.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you for reading! I would love to go back in time and see the neighborhood when it was more vibrant, but alas.

      • janvanbetsuni Says:

        Pls. mod. my 2 comments at: The oldest apartment house might be in Yorkville: (totally luv this blog)&((btw- i went to v.c. w/p.z)&(pls erase post this)

      • janvanbetsuni Says:

        sorry Emily – meant to reply under my own comment – eyes are going

  6. Alexandra Daniele Says:

    When I was a trainee with the Harkness Ballet in the late 60s, the company opened up an annex in Bohemian Hall. It was 2 blocks from my house on 71st St, so was super convenient for late afternoon/ evening classes. My parents and I used to go to a wonderful Czech restaurant called Ruc, on 72nd and 2nd Ave- incredibly good, and inexpensive.

  7. Shelly Says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. My grandmother’s parents were from Czechoslovakia and actually referred to their home as “Bohemia”. They lived in Queens and my grandma worked in Manhattan as a shoe model. She had a crazy small foot – a size 5, I think she once told me! And, she shared that she once modeled shoes for Eleanor Roosevelt in NYC before she got married. Now I wonder if she frequented some of the restaurants on the upper east side. I’m sure she had, but sadly, I can’t ask her now.

  8. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Does anyone know how Yorkville got its name? Wikipedia offered no answers.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That’s a good question…anyone know? I know York Ave was named for Sergeant Alvin York from WWI….

    • Bob Says:

      Yorkville started as a village on the Boston Post Road over 200 years ago, and the name has nothing to do with Sgt. York.

  9. Majda Kallab Whitaker Says:

    Thanks for your lovely tour of the old Czech Upper East Side!

    To add to your overview, the Bohemian National Hall is a center of vibrant activity, open to the public but for the pandemic. Today the Czech Republic, which owns the restored and renovated building, maintains a cultural presence through the Czech Center New York. The Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association, the founding organization which erected the building in 1896 and still resides there, has a number of active affiliates including the Dvořák American Heritage Association, Czechoslovak Society of the Arts and Sciences, NY Chapter, Vaclav Havel Library Foundation and Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, among others. These organizations principally sponsor virtual events at the moment. The ground-floor restaurant, Bohemian Spirit, is a popular place for Czech food and beer, and is now open. All are welcome!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for this Majda! I’m coming to the restaurant soon, it looks so inviting and refreshing.

  10. Anna Kisluk Says:

    Back in the 1970s there was still a Czech presence on the Upper East Side. My mother who was a Czech emigre visited me several times and once we went to Restaurant Praha. She complained about everything (in Czech of course). Unfortunately, the waiter was Czech. I think when actually enjoyed the opportunity to complain and be understood.

  11. janvanbetsuni Says:

    Most everyone knows something about Martin Luther and the Protestant Revolution. Very few know of Jan Hus and the Hussite Movement – also called the Bohemian Revolution ||1420–1434||. It was sparked by the execution Jan Hus and substantially concerned grievances of social status (religious title) shielding elites of the day from punishments under the law. (Jan Hus Presbyterian Church)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for this; I confess I know very little about Jan Hus. But I’m glad there’s a church in Manhattan memorializing him.

  12. Terra Says:

    Hi, I’m new here and am grateful to have found your site. I have an affinity for architecture, and am looking forward to seeing more.

  13. Jung Says:

    Chinese laundry on 72nd st with 6 kids. Czech Cigar maker next door taught little girl how to sing in Czech. Big hit at Sokol Hall sitting atop the piano…

  14. Steven Otero Says:

    I know this is a little off topic . I’ve been locked out of Facebook & am having trouble getting back in .

  15. Martin Nekola Says:

    For those who are able to read in Czech, the book “Český New York” written by Martin Nekola, Ph.D. has been recently published in Prague 😉

  16. Roger Sokol Says:

    What a great article of the Czech Yorkville section of the upper East Side. Both my parents grew up there, children of Czech immigrants. I remember my mother telling me how she learned to read in and write in Czech at the “school” in Bohemian National Hall and how she was a Sokol (gymnast) before she married a Sokol. My parents were married in Jan Hus Church and had their wedding reception in the Bohemian National Hall. This article touched on so many things I heard them reminisce about from their childhood.

  17. ‘Little Hungary’ was once on East 79th Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] few weeks ago, Ephemeral New York put together a post about the former Czech neighborhood once centered around 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues on the Upper East […]

  18. Lorinda Klein Says:

    Thank you for this article. My Grandparents came to the US from Czechoslovakia in the early 1920s.Their brothers and sisters followed. My whole family lived within the 3 or 4 blocks of the neighborhood. Mom was born on 73rd street and grew up just across from the Sokol. They all went to the Bohemian National Hall. My Mother and Grandfather played violin and clarinet in the orchestra there. My Grandmother and her sister, my Teta Mary waitressed in the 2 establishments there.My Great Uncle Otto was the baker in the bakery on First Avenue between 71st and 72nd street. He made the Houska. My Great Uncle Antonin – Tony owned the small grocery right next to the National Hall. And Kritl did our Funeral Services. My late mother’s instructions were to use them because she went to public school with John and we should “Give them the business.”

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