The Beer Garden at Bohemia Hall, located just north of Astoria Blvd. at 29-19 24th Ave., is the last authentic outdoor beer garden in New York City. It is owned and managed by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society- a cultural center and mutual aid society founded in 1892.
The Society and Bohemian Hall
Immigrant clubs and societies were common in the 19th century. According to their charter, the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society was founded to, “maintain schools, dramatics, lectures, and libraries for Czech and Slovak children and children of Czech and Slovak parentage, to maintain a social home for people of Czech and Slovak ancestry, in which he Czech and Slovak cultures may be taught and blended with American traditions and culture.” On April 7, 1906, Benevolent Society members Frank and Annie Sovak purchased three lots (measuring 75’ by 100’ in total) on 24th Avenue in Astoria. This original purchase is where today’s Bohemian Hall stands. From the beginning, however, adjoining vacant lots were used informally for picnics and outdoor activities. In the 1930s, this space would be formally donated to the Benevolent Society and turned into today’s Beer Garden.
Frank Chmelik, another member of the Benevolent Society, is listed in public records as the architect of Bohemian Hall, as well as the first owner. Above the main entrance is carved Cesky Domov meaning Czech Home. While Bohemian Hall was a center of Czech culture in Queens, other groups were welcome to use the space, and they frequently did. In the first decade after it was built, Bohemian Hall would be used for activities as wide-ranging as bird shows, union meetings for barbers, dances, bowling, basketball, and amateur theatrics.
The Knights of Columbus, the Ditmar Social Club, the Farmers of Astoria and the Long Island Pigeon Club were just some of the non-Czech groups meeting at Bohemian Hall in the early 20th century. In addition to the assembly space, Bohemian Hall is notable for its gymnasium, which was built for practicing Sokol. Sokol (pronounced sew-coal) is a traditional organization for Czech youth, centered on gymnastics. The Sokol hall at Bohemian Hall is one of only two left in New York City. Today Bohemian Hall is used by local groups and clubs from all backgrounds.
By 1910, forty-one percent of the population of New York City was comprised of immigrants, but Czech and Bohemian immigration is not as well-known as the Irish or Germans. Beginning around 1848, the ‘Year of Revolutions,’ immigration from Habsburg territories picked up due to instability at home. Between 33,000 and 45,000 Bohemian immigrants arrived in the United States each decade between 1860 and 1900. There were 326 Czech newspapers being published, including 2 daily papers in New York City. Czechoslovakian immigration continued steadily throughout the 20th century, with the Nazi invasion, the rise of communism, and finally the “velvet revolution” creating insecurity in Europe.
Bohemian Hall is an authentic relic of the communities and lifestyles of the first Czech immigrants – a symbol of the fluid dynamic between assimilation and cultural identity. Despite an active connection to their traditional European roots, the local Bohemian population in Astoria was very patriotic and loyal to their new homeland. In March of 1917, at the apex of the Russian Revolution, a “mass meeting of all Americans, especially those of Bohemian and Slovak descent,” was held in Bohemian Hall and reported in local edition of the Brooklyn Daily Star. The meeting (which was organized on the 14th to be held March 17th) was publicized on March 16th, the day American papers first learned of the Czar’s abdication, adding to the furor and anti-German sentiment. Bohemians wanted to distinguish themselves as patriotic Americans and anti-German. The Brooklyn Daily Star was printing loyalty pledge in every day’s paper at the time, and the Bohemian National Alliance called the meeting in order to sign it en masse. “Executive officers of the local branch of the National Bohemian Alliance hope that this meeting will be one of the greatest demonstrations of patriotism ever held in Astoria… We especially hope that the Czecho-Slovaks, who have suffered under Teutonic rule for more than three centuries, will avail themselves of the opportunity to show their gratitude to the national executive who has so clearly expressed their greatest wish: ‘Every nation should have the undeniable right to govern its own destinies without hindrance, molestation, or oppression by its stronger neighbors.’” In the event, more than 500 people attended the rally and signed the pledge, while a keynote speaker recounted the long history of Bohemian oppression in the Hapsburg kingdoms that comprised the Central Powers.
The Beer Garden
The open air Beer Garden is the last remaining one of its kind in New York. The outdoor space measures 200’ by 125’ and can accommodate 1,000 people. The space is furnished with picnic tables and benches, some original to the 1930s opening. The large concrete wall was built in 1947. Above the bar are wooden crests of Bohemia, Moravia, and the Slovak Republic. In the open garden are Linden and Trumpeter Elm trees. On September 9, 2000 Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic in town for a United Nations General Assembly, took an afternoon to visit Bohemia Hall and even planted a Linden tree in the garden. “It doesn’t matter here who you are, what clothes you wear,” argued a New York Times article a month later. “Everybody wants to sit outside and have a beer.”
The Benevolent society and the Beer Garden itself had issues with funding in the 1980s-1990s, but today the garden is as busy as ever. It does brisk business and is very popular with local residents of all ethnicity, especially on a hot summer day.