Wednesday, August 24, 2011

R. H. Robertson's 1888 Jan Hus Church - 347 East 74th Street


During the second half of the 19th Century, immigrants flowed into New York from Bohemia – the European area that would later become the core of Czechoslavakia. Hungarian-born Presbyterian minister Gustav Albert Alexy pulled together about two dozen Czech-speaking immigrants in 1874 and planted the seed for what would become the Jan Hus Church three years later.

Unfortunately the Bohemians could not understand the Hungarian’s sermons. But it all worked out.

Named after the 15th Century Czech religious reformer and martyr, the congregation had grown large enough by the late 1880s to build its own building.

The Bohemian community was settling heavily in the Upper East Side and it was here, on East 74th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, that land was purchased for the new structure. Construction began in 1888 and was completed in 1891 at a cost of $50,000. Designed by R. H. Robertson, the church was on the cutting edge of religious architecture at the time.

Robertson was already known for his Romanesque Revival style – using chunky blocks of rough-cut stone blended with brick and terra cotta – but here he mixed in more traditional Gothic Revival elements. Over a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would muse “Bohemian Gothic Revival?”

The Jan Hus House to the right melded with the original architecture of the church -- photo
In 1915 the Church house, known as the Jan Has House, was completed in a remarkably complimentary style – a nearly seamless design. The adjoining land and $5,000 had been donated by an anonymous “American friend of the work.” After $6,500 was contributed by congregants and others, the Church Extension Committee of New York Presbytery appropriated the remaining $28,500 to build the six-story structure.

Inside were classrooms, meeting rooms, “ample facilities for all the clubs,” living quarters for ten people, and the parsonage.

Chldren pose outside the Jan Hus House in 1917 -- photo "The Church and the City" (copyright expired)
A major problem with which the church had to content was the cavelier attitude of Bohemians towards organized religion. Their history of persecution resulted in most Czechs preferring to avoid organized services altogether.

By now the Bohemian community in New York numbered 30,000 and according to the Presbyterian Church’s 1917 “The Church and the City,” the Jan Hus Church was “The only distinctively Bohemian Protestant Christian work carried on” among them. Yet the church had an active congregation of only 350 members, with over Sunday School 1,000 members.

photo by
In 1922 Czech historian Kenneth D. Miller explained that of the then 6,753 Protestant Bohemians in New York City, “fully five thousand people claim the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church as theirs. This means that they were baptized or married there, or have at some time attended Sunday School there.” It did not mean they were weekly worshipers.

Despite this, Jan Hus was one of the few self-supporting foreign language churches in the United States.

On February 6, 1930 Reverend Dr. Vincent Pisek died in the parsonage after serving the church for 46 years; the oldest pastor in the Presbytery in continuous service at the time. Among his many contributions to the church and congregation, Pisek was proud to have married 11,582 couples and claimed that not one of them had divorced.

In 1939 little girls dressed in traditional Czech costumes and the church was festooned in colorful Bohemian decorations when Jan Masaryk, the son of the founder of Czechoslovakia, paid a visit to Jan Hus. Over 700 congregants filled the church to hear Masaryk address the crowd.  Praising Americans, he declared “It is your great country that is giving us the lead.”

In 1952 the Jan Hus House became home to the Jan Hus Theater and the American Savoyards, which remained until 1967.  Throughout the next decades the 150-seat auditorium saw performers like Barbara Streisand in The Insect Comedy, her first New York role in 1960.  Troupes that performed here included LOOM (Light Opera of Manhattan), Chicago City Limits (a improvisation comedy team), The Remarkable Theater Brigade and the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre Company.  Renowned comedians like Paul Reiser, Brett Butler, Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld have hosted the Chicago City Limits Friday night stand-up.

By the end of the 20th Century the masonry of Jan Hus Church was showing the effects of a century of use and weather. Burda Construction Corp. was hired to initiate an exterior restoration of the brownstone as well as reproducing many salvageable decorative stone elements.

The “Little Bohemia” neighborhood has changed. Few Czech-speaking residents still walk the streets or attend Jan Hus Church. But Roberson’s bold, robust building remains a handsome fixture of East 74th Street and an integral page of Manhattan’s multicultural history.

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