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Case Study: Bohemian Hall

The Significance of Long-Standing Use

The corner store. The beauty shop. The basketball court. The Grange Hall.

Every town or neighborhood has one or more of these local landmarks, places that play a prominent role in everyday community life. They serve as informal and formal gathering places, economic anchors, or symbols of history and identity. They may or may not resonate beyond their immediate community, but their loss can provoke a deep mourning and, in some cases, real consequences for that community’s well-being.

These places are not typical candidates for historic preservation. While their significance derives from several factors – such as architectural design, location and context, and historic or cultural associations – it is often their long-standing use that is most meaningful. Therein lies the preservation challenge.

There are few tried-and-true strategies for preserving places significant for their long-standing use. The locally-owned economy movement is gaining momentum in protecting community character, using zoning or special ordinances to stop chain store development, or using cooperatives to strengthen independent businesses. There are even fewer options in the historic preservation toolbox. This case study will focus on one that is helping to expand our notions of why long-standing use is significant, and how it affects preservation decisions: National Register Bulletin 38, “Guidelines for Documenting and Evaluating Traditional Cultural Properties.” This case study also will illustrate how particular building types play a role in sustaining community-based uses, and hence the need to incorporate strategies based on typologies into historic preservation practice.

Bohemian Hall & Park, Astoria, Queens, New York

Since its construction in 1910 by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society, Bohemian Hall & Park has been home to several New York City Sokol leagues (traditional gymnastics), a Czech language school, and a range of local clubs, from choral societies to civic groups. In the 1930s the Society added a European-style beer garden and bar, filling a walled courtyard with Linden trees, the national tree of the Czech Republic. Today, Bohemian Hall’s beer garden is the last in the city; its Czech School is the last of its kind here; and its Sokol hall is one of only two remaining in New York City.

While the Czech community of Astoria has dwindled during the past 40 years, Bohemian Hall remains a lively center for Czech culture and is a destination for Czech Americans throughout the metropolitan region. Seven annual events draw hundreds of former residents of New York’s Czech neighborhoods, as well as new immigrants from throughout the region. The Hall’s survival and revival over several generations is connected to patterns of Czech immigration to the United States. Each new wave of immigrants, varying in number, character, and influence has had a desire to socialize with like kind and so has brought new energy to Bohemian Hall.

Equally important to the Hall’s survival and present-day vitality is its use as a hall-for- hire by other ethnic groups. Since the 1950s, Italian, Hungarian, Croatian, South American, Cypriot, and many other groups have held regular communal events here, while a Greek senior center and the Emerald Society of Irish Police Officers are among the local organizations that rely on the hall for meeting space.

Bohemian Hall is a tangible reminder of New York’s Czech enclaves of the early 20th century. Its connection to this past fosters an understanding of how cultural groups assimilate while retaining and reshaping their cultural identity in a new environment. As a symbol of the collective experience of several generations of Czech immigrants, and with most of its early traditions intact, Bohemian Hall demonstrates the role that long-standing use plays in supporting the cultural continuity of one group. The Hall’s spatial elements as a hall-for-hire (with an auditorium, dining hall, and outdoor courtyard) demonstrate the role that architectural form plays in sustaining a range of community activities.

National Register Bulletin 38: "Guidelines for Documenting and Evaluating Traditional Cultural Properties"

In 1999, as part of its Millennium Initiative, New York's State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) invited Place Matters to help identify significant “non-traditional” properties in New York City. Bohemian Hall was one of three properties listed on the State and National Registers as a result.

The SHPO found that Bohemian Hall met the Register criteria for significance in the following categories:

  • Criterion A: for association for events in the history of Czech and other Slavic immigrants; association with ethnic heritage and social history of New York City; association with history of recreation as home to Sokol organizations for 90 years.
  • Criterion C: for embodying the distinctive characteristics of early 20th-century meeting hall design serving social, cultural, and recreational needs; the beer garden is important as the only surviving landscape design of its type in New York City.
  • In addition, the property was designated a Traditional Cultural Property under the guidelines of Bulletin 38.

The Traditional Cultural Property designation has both symbolic and practical implications for Bohemian Hall. By acknowledging the activities, customs, and attitudes of the Czech community who own and operate the Hall, listing on the National Register validates their cultural contributions to New York’s history. Bulletin 38’s culturally-based interpretations of significance, integrity and period of significance validate the Hall’s vernacular design and the need for functional alterations common to places of long-standing use.

The precepts of Bulletin 38 bring a wholly new perspective to the National Register standards for assessment. In brief:

  • significance derives from "the role the property plays in a community's historically rooted beliefs, customs and practices"
  • integrity can be evaluated within the context of use over time-- i.e., when physical alterations have been made in response to functional needs, to accommodate traditional activities, they are not considered to have had a negative impact on the property’s integrity;
  • period of significance can extend into the present day (well beyond the usual 50 year cut off date), acknowledging the importance of continuity as well as history

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. For example in the 1970s, the auditorium was altered to better serve the thriving Sokol teams, with the removal of a large proscenium stage which was no longer used by the theatrical and choral societies. And the period of significance was determined to be “1910 to the present,” as the property continues to be central to the traditions and identity of New York’s Czech American community.

Bulletin 38 was written to address issues of preservation related to Native American properties, and has rarely been used to evaluate other types of property. Bohemian Hall’s designation is one of only a few for non-Native American properties in the country. The National Register staff are interested in, albeit cautious about, expanding the use of this tool. So it offers practitioners one way of approaching the preservation of long-standing use.