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Rising Above: The National Czech and Slovak Museum

posted on November 13, 2012 at 1:52 PM

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Opening day at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, July 14, 2012.  Slightly more than four years after a historic flood left the museum under a thick blanket of mud, silt and complete destruction.  This is an inspiring story about a people and a culture who have persevered, a community proud of its heritage, a city with strong roots in the Czech and Slovak traditions and a museum that was literally lifted out of disaster into a strong existence and presence within Cedar Rapids.  Why did this national museum land in Iowa?  Why not New York or Washington, D.C.?

The first wave of Bohemian immigrants came to Cedar Rapids, Iowa following the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 settling in an area just south of downtown along the Cedar River.

Mark Stoffer Hunter: They had so many limits on issues such as land ownership and forging their own lives and their own ways, they felt they really had nothing to lose by going to America.

The first Czech and Slovak social hall was built in 1869 and the Cedar Rapids Czech School was established in 1870 continuing through today as the oldest continuously operated ethnic school in the country.  The expansion of the Sinclair meat packing plant at the south end of 3rd Street Southeast in 1872 provided jobs for many immigrants, focusing the next area of Czech settlement into the early 20th century and creating a Little Bohemia district. 

During this period many Czech landmarks were built including the 3rd Ward Public School and iron bridge across the Cedar River at 14th Avenue East, St. Wenceslas Catholic Church and School, New CSPS Hall, Sokol Gymnasium, commercial buildings and blocks.  The development of large warehouses in the Little Bohemia area and the opening of the Douglas Starchworks, now Penford Products, on the west bank of the river shifted the next phase of settlement and commercial development to 16th Avenue Southwest. 

Around 1906 the industrial club of 16th Avenue West was established to support the developing Czech retail and service district there, later known as the 16th Avenue Commercial Club.  This area thrived and served as a major Cedar Rapids shopping district into the 1960s.

Bob Schaffer: Actually my mother was born and raised in Czechoslovakia, came to the U.S. in 19 -- well early 1947.  My mother just happened to open up the paper one morning and spotted this big headline, merchants to revitalize Czech Village.  So, she had already been importing various things from Czechoslovakia and we sold them around the country to different gift shops.  And she just thought it would be a great place to open up a little shop.  I think we took possession in July of '75.

John Rocarek: My name is John Rocarek and the family has been here since 1854, third, fourth and fifth generation American-Czech and proud of my heritage.  I've been a volunteer in the Czech community for over 25 years and been volunteering with the Czech Heritage Foundation for the majority of that time.  But then when the museum decided they needed to expand their facility I got involved with that.

John Rocarek: In the early 70s the Czech community got together and decided that they wanted to have a resurgence of their heritage and the three organizations were formed -- the Czech Heritage Foundation, Czech Fine Arts Foundation and the Czech Village Association. 

Bob Schaffer: Having a Czech and Slovak Museum in this neighborhood was going to be one of the key elements, not only from a tourism standpoint but also as a repository for all of the artifacts that were collected and owned by a lot of the Czechs in the area and also just to preserve the culture which was something that was very quickly dying off in those days.  So that was the reason for the establishment of the Czech Fine Arts Foundation and that was its charge was to establish a museum.  The very first Czech Museum down here was actually in a house.

Jan Stoffer: The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is in Cedar Rapids because our population had the nerve to do it.  I think they had the courage to say, this story isn't being told, the story is going to disappear if somebody doesn't tell it.

Over time the collections grew and the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library was recognized in the congressional record in 1992.  The collections were outgrowing the existing buildings so a capital campaign was conducted for a new 16,000 square foot building.

Ann Poe: We originally opened and dedicated the National Czech and Slovak Museum in 1995 in October.  And at that time I was the dedication week coordinator.  My family history is Czech.  My great-grandfather was Czech and from the Czech Republic.  We had three seated presidents at the time, President Clinton was here along with President Havel and President Kovac.  And we were delighted.  It was the first time in the history of the state that we had three seated presidents and I don't think it's happened again since.

From 1995 to 2008, rapid growth in collections, exhibitions, programming and membership continued.  The first international exhibition, A Thousand Years of Czech Culture: Riches from the National Museum in Prague, opened in 1997.  In 1998, a professionally designed core exhibit, Homelands: The Story of the Czech and Slovak People, opened.  Quarterly magazine Slovo began publication in 2000. 

Gail Naughton: It was apparent even when I arrived, which was only about seven or so years after the new building had been built, that we were already running out of space.  And so we went into a planning process about expanding the museum as it sat on the edge of the river.

Jason Wright: When I came in 2007, Gail Naughton, our president, had approached me because she knew I had had experience in capital campaigns and that my heritage was Czech.  The numbers for the capital campaign originally, pre-flood, were very vague because we were still doing the analysis of exactly how much space we were going to need.  The rough number that the board and Gail and I came up with was $25 million.

The heavy snowfall that Iowa and the upper Midwest received during the winter of 2007-2008 coupled with very heavy spring and summer rains led to widespread flooding across the state.

Joe Winters: Every year we have snow packs, certainly we have to deal with that.  But combine that with some very, very heavy rains that happened in the spring, that ground moisture was just very, very high.  There was no place for the water to go except into the rivers. 

Gail Naughton: We came to work on Monday morning and there had been flooding north of Cedar Rapids, up around Mason City and Charles City and it was coming south.  However, the warnings, all the gauges on the river were saying it wouldn't go above 22 feet and the building, our building sat at 23 feet above.  My husband and I got a phone call at 3AM and it was Lu Barta-Barron who is a Linn County supervisor and she called and she said, Gail, the river has breached the flood wall in Czech Village.

Joe Winters: One of the scarier times probably was when we lost all the gauges on the river.  So suddenly in the Cedar Rapids area there were estimates certainly of what the level was but those estimates were way underestimated at the time.  So we didn't exactly know how high it was going to crest at different times.

Gail Naughton: About five o'clock I started phoning the staff and I said, we need to come in today and we need to pack up as much as we can, we need to get as much out as we can today.  Even though we still at that point had not ever gotten a warning and the whole city was still under the impression that we would not get water to the height of what our building sat high compared to a lot of places around us.

Jan Stoffer: We went immediately to our disaster plan and started to work the plan which meant calling our friends to get some semi-tractor trailers out, we called upon local citizens, a high school to come and help us sandbag and we started our evacuation procedures.  We worked furiously to save the artifact collection and the library collection to the best of our ability.

Gail Naughton: And a policeman came by and these were the guys on the bicycles and they said, you know, you have to leave.  He says, you need to tell me what your Social Security number is because I'm going to write it on my arm and he says, because we will not come back and save you.  You feel like you should be doing something and there wasn't anything you could do and so we left but before we did I grabbed four costumed figures and put them in the back of my van and took them with me.

Gail Naughton: That Thursday it rained five inches in Cedar Rapids that day.  It was like the end of the world.  Someone had gotten out with early shots of the river from a plane and they're kind of flying from the north end of town down to the south end of town and they go by and they said, oh yeah, and there's the museum and there it was and there was water maybe halfway up the side.  That was the day I cried.

Joe Winters: When we finally finished, the crest ultimately got to 31 feet or a little bit over 31 feet which was just higher than anyone had ever forecast or even imagined could happen, well above records.

480 blocks of Cedar Rapids, Iowa was under water.  Nearly 10 square miles. 

Gail Naughton: I decided that we were going to get moving.  The staff was going to get moving.  We had things to do.  We had to -- we had artifacts to save, we had -- we needed to get back inside that building, we needed to see what was damaged, what wasn't damaged.  So we started having meetings at my house.  On Friday afternoon we met at my dining room table. 

Jan Stoffer: So as we were sitting around Gail's dining room table she shared with us the message that she had received from the Czech ambassador who had heard that we were flooded and called her immediately at home to tell her that no matter what the Czech government was going to support the NCSML.

Gail Naughton: Tuesday, they allowed us to walk into Czech Village and then on over and we could walk into the museum.  And walking into Czech Village it was like a bomb had hit it. 

Gail Naughton: The staff worked every day.  People brought us meals.  It was wonderful.  People were wonderful.  We had calls and help from various other museums who sent their curators or people over to help us.  I didn't have a piece of paper, we didn’t have a pencil and we had to start from scratch.  No admissions, no museum store and no facility rentals, wiped out.

Jason Wright: We received a lot of inquiries while the flood was still rising about what people could do to help.  So my first chore was getting our website so that people could immediately find a donate now button and give.  And not only people in the Cedar Rapids area, we're a national museum, we heard within a month from 49 states.  We heard from seven different countries giving through this.

Gail Naughton: Within days we had representatives of the Czech government here to tour and in September, so this was really in a very short time, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and the Parliament passed an allocation, a special gift to the city of Cedar Rapids for flood recovery and it was $10 million crowns which turns out to be about $600,000.

Jan Stoffer: Frank Magid and Associates stepped up and offered us the lower level of their office building at no rent for a year and in October we were ready to open at Lindale Mall and that space was large enough for us to continue to have a museum store, which was important because that was one leg of our revenue.  As wonderful as Lindale Mall was we weren't the right fit because we needed our neighborhood.  The Kosek building came about as an option.  The NCSML was able to purchase that property, restore it and then I hope be an example to not only our community but others of how you can take a building that is nearly 100 years old, bring it into the 21st century, have state-of-the-art technology, be LEED certified and a strong, viable building in a historic neighborhood.

Jan Stoffer: We also have a classroom downstairs.  Visitors can still go to the Kosek building, we can still take school groups in there, they can still use that classroom as well as tour the Rising Above exhibition and hear about that.  And we realized that what the teachers needed was an opportunity to go learn about the watershed.  At the end of the unit the students were supposed to create a flood mitigation plan for the city of Cedar Rapids.  This will be the fourth year we have done this curriculum with the seventh graders but we still have an immigration and a development of Cedar Rapids story to tell as well that we do with second graders. 

Lu Barron: The original Czech and Slovak Museum and Library has this iconic red roof on it and when the floods came that was really the poster print that we used in everything because the water came right up to that red roof.  That also was a building that many Czechs and Slovaks put a lot of time, effort and money into and we knew we wanted to reuse it in some manner.

Gary Rozek: And we studied the different possible uses for the building.  We looked at whether or not we could convert it to a pavilion, whether or not we left it here and just made it into an events center, we looked at whether we should demolish it and we also looked at whether or not we could save it, move it, reuse it, expand it.  It was a tough decision.  It really wasn't easy.  But we found a moving company that we felt could do the job and so we looked at the economics of that move and it really made sense economically but it also made sense emotionally because there were a lot of people that were emotionally attached to this building and wanted to save it.  So our plans were to move this building in late April and we had one of the wettest Aprils on record and it was so wet we could not move the building at that time.

Gary Rozek: And when we finally lifted the building we discovered that one end of the building weighed 56 more ton than the other end of the building.  And so we had to do significant additional bracing inside that building to make sure it stayed together with that uneven weight distribution.

We are moving a museum!

One, two, three!

Gary Rozek: And then it continued to rain and so we added rock to the soil and we added, we brought in some three-quarter inch steel plates and we leap-frogged the steel plates from behind the building to pull it along when they were on mobile dollies and we moved it in front and even at one point the steel plates were sinking and so we ended up having to have a wrecker come in and an excavator and pull from each end of the building and try and pull it along rather than allow it to move on its mobile dollies on firm ground like it was supposed to.  But we finally got it over there and finally raised it up and finally moved it onto the new foundation.  We were expecting to be done with the move project in June of 2011 and we ended up finalizing it in October.  And yet Rinderknecht, our general contractors, did everything they could and all the subs danced around each other to keep us on schedule to allow us to open in July.

Stefanie Kohn: I would say out of the 10,000 items maybe 10 to 15% were damaged by the flood and the majority of those were able to be saved.  The textiles were taken to the Chicago Conservation Center and they were washed and treated and we have those back now.  And some of the glassware was just fine, it was just dirty so we were able to wash that.

Jason Wright: The original price tag before the flood was $25 million and afterwards almost to the penny was $25 million.  So the need didn't change, we still needed to expand.  The price tag didn't change.  What really changed was the timeline.  As I said before, this is a six to eight year process.  We got it done in 19 months.

After four years of planning, fundraising, building and moving, the new, expanded Czech and Slovak Museum and Library held a grand opening on July 14, 2012. 

We are back!

Petr Gandalovic: Today we are celebrating the strength of the Czech-American community and the sheer will of individuals in the leadership of the Czech and Slovak National Museum here not to give up after the floods but relentlessly work to rebuild and revive the museum again.

We're in the grand hall.  It is the gateway to the new part of the museum which houses the galleries and the library.  In our new space, which was added onto the old building, we tripled the size of the original museum and the new wing houses the galleries.  So now we have three exhibit galleries.  The smallest is the Smith Gallery which is behind me.  It's about 800 square feet and it is the perfect place for traveling and temporary exhibits.  The other temporary gallery is called the Petra Gallery.  It is a little bigger.  It is 1750 square feet and it has our textile exhibit right now.  Everything in that exhibit was damaged in the flood and then restored at the Chicago Conservation Center and that has been a really nice exhibit space so we can show people how we have recovered from the flood, not just this building, but our artifacts have recovered as well.

In the center is the entrance to the largest exhibit gallery and that is the Geruska Gallery.  That will someday hold our permanent exhibit which will tell the story of the Czech and Slovak people.  That will open next year.  Right now we have a temporary exhibit on Alphonse Mucha.  It is called Inspirations of Art Nouveau and this has been a blockbuster exhibit for us and it is a perfect exhibit to celebrate our opening again to the public.

David Muhlena: The previous facility that we had in the old building that was flooded was 900 square feet and we have 5400 square feet of capacity now, about six times the amount of space that we had before.  So that allows us to bring all of the materials that we have had stored off site, not just from the time of the flood but before the flood, into one facility.  So we are able to bring these materials in and make them available to our staff, the public and our members.

Lu Barron: Well we were able to come back at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library bigger and better but even more importantly all of Cedar Rapids I believe came back even stronger and better.  We have a new federal courthouse that is going to open this fall.  We have a new convention center being built.  We had a lot of county buildings and city buildings that were both affected by the flood in this downtown area.  So we took the opportunity to come back better than what we were before.  We have a year-round city market that is going to happen in our New Bo area that is adjacent to our Czech Village and that is going to be a very important part of an entertainment district and arts district here in Cedar Rapids.  It has already spurred development of new restaurants, shops, a coffee shop.  All sorts of things are really happening there. 

Ann Poe: What it means is more tourists into our area and so bringing people back into our community and having them stop and visit our community.  Again, it is one of the silver linings from this disaster is this regrowth and this redevelopment of our community and it is wonderful.

Gail Naughton: We think we have built a museum that is a catalyst for this neighborhood, that has helped build this arts and entertainment district that is going to deliver programs to people not only in Cedar Rapids, in Iowa but all over the world.

The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library now has the capacity to serve even more people with a stronger national and international presence.

Sue Plotz Olson: We think we are the story of immigrants.  We're the story of freedom.  We certainly tell it through the Czech and Slovak lens.  We want to be able to tell our story to a 21st century audience in a 21st century manner but we want them to receive that and process it in their own minds.  You're going to see a lot of reflecting questions back to the visitor, very interactive and we need every square inch for that.

Jason Wright: The flood brought us the opportunity to get in front of a lot of people nationally.  Our national constituency is now aware of us.  They are now -- they realize that we are truly a national museum and we are starting to create these relationships so that we are going to be able to take our touring exhibits on the road with greater frequency, to take presentations and colloquia on the road.

Jan Stoffer: As for membership I think that our audience will continue to grow.

Gail Naughton: We have a new mission.  We have a new vision.  We have plans for the future that I think we wouldn't have been able to make had it not pushed us and driven us to pull out the very best, things you didn't even know you had inside of you.

Peter Burian: The museum can show this kind of really bright picture of Slovaks and Czechs living in the United States and this is the best job and mission of the museum.

Jan Stoffer: I see us having very strong partnerships with the Czech and Slovak Republics. 

Sue Plotz Olson: We're looking at our children and grandchildren to build on what we're creating here to tell the story of freedom and democracy and we anticipate they'll be able to do that.

Jan Stoffer: I see us as a leader in the museum community.  I see our colleagues looking to us as an example of a successful museum and being able to bring in wowzer exhibitions and very dynamic programming.  I think we have a great future ahead of us.

Tags: Cedar Rapids Czech Republic Czechs disasters floods Iowa museums Slovakia Slovaks The National Czech and Slovak Museum