Events & News

The Dvořák House, the Dvořák Room, and a “Historical Memory Bank”

October 14, 2012 | by Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe, Vice-Chair
Article from the Fall 2012 Newsletter

In 1989, Beth Israel Medical Center announced plans to buy and raze an 1852 Italianate row house at 327 East 17th Street near Stuyvesant Square to make way for the creation of an AIDS hospice. The 19th century house had lost its exterior entry stairs, as had many row houses in the City, and the interiors had been partitioned, causing the house to be viewed by some as lacking in architectural merit. But preservationists reacted to the proposed demolition with alarm: the structure had once been the home of renowned Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who rented the first two floors for himself and his family from 1892 to 1895 when he lived in New York City as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. Now, Dvořák’s house, with a plaque on its exterior testifying to his residency and his accomplishments while living there, was in danger of being lost forever. (Unfortunately, 327 East 17th Street lay just outside the Stuyvesant Square Historic District.)

The battle to save the Dvořák House, destined to be filled with twists and turns, remains today a case study in differing perceptions about what is worth saving and why. Dvořák came to New York at the invitation of Jeannette Meyer Thurber, the driving force behind the creation of the National Conservatory of Music of America, which was located near the house that Dvořák rented. During his three-year tenure as director, Dvořák composed two of his masterpieces: his cello concerto in B Minor and his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” The latter occupies a special place in both American and international music canons because Dvořák drew heavily on Native American music and Negro spirituals for inspiration. Dvořák’s students at the Conservatory, in turn, would influence George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Duke Ellington.

Viewing the cultural legacy of the Dvořák House as reason enough to save it from the wrecker’s ball, preservationists immediately set about fighting for landmark designation for the house. Longtime local resident and ardent preservationist Jack Taylor, who has lived on East 18th Street at Third Avenue for many years, had already fought to save Lüchow’s restaurant and now saw this proposed demolition as yet another threat to his neighborhood’s history. Jack immediately set about enlisting members of the Czech-American community, neighborhood residents, including the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association, and well-known musicians to join in the battle to save the Dvořák House. The response was gratifying: in addition to local supporters, noted Czech-born architect Jan Hird Pokorny, later a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), cellist Yo-Yo Ma, theater producer Joseph Papp, and the Czech president and the archbishop of Prague spoke out against the demolition. In 1991, the LPC did indeed designate the house.

However, this success was short-lived. The battle raged on and the fate of the Dvořák House was once again in play because several parties—not just Beth Israel—did not share the viewpoint of preservationists. For one thing, the idea that the building would become an AIDS hospice resonated with many during an era when such facilities were sorely needed, although other buildings nearby were available as alternative sites. Yet another aspect of the debate focused on whether the City should designate a structure simply because a famous person lived in it for a number of years; in other words, does a building without a compelling architectural identity merit preservation?

In “Dvořák Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” an editorial now infamous among many preservationists, The New York Times opined that, “(t)he commissioners made the building a landmark not for its physical attributes but as a kind of historical memory bank.” The paper backed those wishing to overturn the LPC designation. Among those who eloquently defended the idea that the Dvorak House indeed merited saving was Brendan Gill, a dedicated preservationist and a longtime critic for the New Yorker. In a letter to the Times, Gill argued that saving the house was a worthy endeavor precisely because it was a “historical memory bank.” (He satirically asked if Mozart’s house in Salzburg should be torn down because he didn’t live there anymore.) In the end, however, the Council voted to reverse the LPC designation, and the Dvořák House was razed in 1992. According to Jack Taylor, who was present at the hearing, the vote was a close one—20 to 16—and when William Warfield sang “Goin’ Home,” the popular version of the refrain from Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, many members of the City Council were visibly moved.

Fortunately, architect Jan Hird Pokorny managed to salvage something of the composer’s daily life in the row house by saving sections of mantelpieces from the front and back parlors. Although both mantelpieces were damaged, it was possible to join them together to create a single complete unit, thus rescuing at least one element of the home that Dvořák had lived in. The plaque on the exterior of the House was also saved, but it seemed that the Dvořák House might otherwise be lost to public memory. Would the gifted composer so inspired by the “New World” that he lived and worked in be erased from the City’s physical landscape?

Happily, this would not be the case. The Dvořák American Heritage Association (DAHA), founded in 1990 in response to the proposed demolition of the Dvořák house, was determined to keep Dvořák’s memory alive. Immediately after the loss of the Dvořák House, with the support of the DAHA board, Jan Hird Pokorny advocated a two-pronged mission to safeguard the great musician’s rightful place in the City’s “historical memory bank.” The first initiative was to create a room in Dvořák’s memory; the second was to move Croatian-American sculptor Ivan Mestrovic’s statue of Dvořák from the roof of Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) to Stuyvesant Square Park. Although it would take many years to complete the Dvořák Room, Dvořák’s statue, which now stands on a pedestal created by Pokorny, was placed in Stuyvesant Square Park in a public ceremony in 1997.

The site for the memorial room would be at Bohemian National Hall (BNH), a landmarked structure at 321 East 73rd Street. Built in 1896, BNH was created as a gathering place for the substantial community of New Yorkers with Czech and Slovak roots; its umbrella organization, the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association, comprises a number of entities, including the DAHA. While Dvořák was living in New York, plans were underway to build the hall, and the composer gave concerts to raise funds for this endeavor. In recent years, BNH has undergone a significant restoration. Jan Hird Pokorny renovated the building’s beautiful façade, and other architects and designers have provided the Hall with a full interior refurbishment.

Fortunately, Majda Kallab Whitaker stood ready and willing to make the Dvorak Room come to life. Having come to the United States from Prague as an infant, Majda shared her Czech heritage with Dvorak. She had been active in raising funds to preserve Bohemian National Hall and joined the DAHA board in 2006. With a degree from the Bard Graduate Center, Majda was fully qualified as a design and cultural historian with particular expertise in interiors of the 1890s. Once the Dvořák Room’s “bones” were in place, Majda was delighted to undertake what she describes as “a great project to develop a furnishings plan for the space.”

Describing herself as “a preservationist at heart,” Majda used the archival skills necessary for this endeavor, poring over old photographs and reading materials about Dvorak for a year. Although no photographs of the interior of Dvorak’s apartment exist, Majda was able to attain a sense of what the interior of the row house of a man who lived modestly would look like in the early 1890s through her research. The essential mission was to find what Majda calls “iconic” items for a Victorian parlor and to be sure that the room reflected the physical proportions of the times, which dictated high ceilings typical of an 1850s row house.

Using what would be “representative” as her compass, Majda installed an 1890s lighting fixture, noting that the Stuyvesant Square area still had only gas lighting at the time of Dvořák. The room has the red velvet curtains that would have been de rigueur for the period, but Majda decided against using wallpaper, another late Victorian mainstay, because the room is also used as an exhibition space. The marble mantelpiece saved by Jan Hird Pokorny is now installed in the Dvořák Room, as is an 1893“imperial-sized” signed photographic portrait of the composer. A period desk sits beneath the portrait, and to the right of the desk is a turn-of-the-century birdcage, evoking the recollections of Harry T. Burleigh, one of Dvořák’s famous African American students, who said that Dvořák liked to open his birdcages and let the occupants fly freely about the room. What is missing from the room is a Steinway piano. Steinway & Sons, whose showroom was nearby on East 14th Street for many years, had given a piano to the composer as a present, but whether it was an upright or a grand remains a mystery. (In correspondence, Dvořák described the piano as the “one good piece of furniture” in his parlor.)

A large plaster cast of the statue of Dvořák now in Stuyvesant Square Park also graces one corner of the room. Majda saved this item in a dramatic fashion. Having located the plaster cast at the Manhattan School of Music, Majda indicated her interest in obtaining it. Disaster nearly struck, however, before Majda could get to the school and claim her prize: because of the statue’s poor condition at the time, it was just about to be placed in a dumpster when a quick thinking librarian at the school called Majda to effect a rescue.

Since the Dvořák Room is also an exhibition space, Majda integrated other elements to make the space useful for meetings and to showcase memorabilia associated with Dvořák. A 19th-century inspired modern conference table with chairs and a row of old display cases, on long-term loan from the New York Public Library, grace the room, and a period mirror donated by Jack Taylor hangs above the mantelpiece.

The Dvořák Room opened to the public on October 12, 2011 with a special exhibition, “Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.” This event culminated years of remarkable effort on the part of those dedicated to preserving Dvořák’s heritage in America. The creation of a room evoking Dvořák’s daily life in the City dramatically contradicts the argument offered by the Times in 1991 that a “historical memory bank” is not worth saving. As Jack Taylor so aptly observed in an interview for this article, “the loss of the Dvořák House was a blow to preservation. But the current state of memorializing the composer reflects the power of the landmarks law in keeping alive both the debate and Dvořák’s legacy. In many ways we, the preservation community, have caused people who otherwise might not care about classical music to appreciate it through the story of Dvořák, and the Dvořák Room is a fitting place in which to recognize the composer’s legacy in the City.”

Indeed, the New York Preservation Archive Project recognizes this “coda” of remembrance of Antonín Dvořák as a notable element of the preservation battle for his home. The story contains many of the threads of the preservation tapestry: the battle to save a site (in this case unsuccessful but instructive historically); the efforts to salvage what could be saved; the use of archives to recapture historical facts and images; the dedication to find a new path of historic expression of person and place; and the donation by Jack Taylor of his papers dealing with the Dvořák  House battle to the DAHA. In fact, Majda is now in touch with the Archive Project for advice on how to organize and save these papers, and Jack hopes that they may someday be used to create an exhibition in the Dvořák Room telling the story of the lost battle to save the composer’s house.

Through the efforts of Jan Hird Pokorny (now deceased), DAHA board members Jack Taylor, Majda Kallab Whitaker, Susan Lucak, conductor Maurice Peress, NYU music professor Michael Beckerman, and others, Dvořák is once again honored in a space that recognizes him as an important part of the City’s history. The plaque placed in 1941 on the Dvořák House by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia now greets visitors coming to visit the Dvořák Room, encouraging them to pause and think of a great composer’s creative sojourn in the City and the efforts of generations of New Yorkers who worked so hard to commemorate the remarkable opus resulting from that three year visit.

This article is based on a series of conversations with Jack Taylor and Majda Kallab Whitaker; a tour of the Dvořák Room; relevant background materials on the Archive Project’s website; and newspaper articles in The New York Times. For those interested in reading more about the Dvořák House, The New York Preservation Archive Project’s website contains two interviews with Jack Taylor on his preservation activities, one of which deals in depth with the battle to save the Dvořák House. The Archive Project’s website has also posted a separate history of the Dvořák House.

Above: Dvorak Room at the Bohemian National Hall; Courtesy of Majda Kallab Whitaker