Though not exactly hidden, since the grand exterior bedecked with flags makes it hard to miss, I still consider the Bohemian National Hall a hidden gem due to the magnificent spaces and programs cached behind its walls, unknown to local passersby. For a short time, my husband and I had an apartment a few doors down from this imposing building, and had the opportunity to step inside a couple times. However, it was Cynthia Sutherland - Public Relations head for the Czech Center at the Bohemian National Hall - who provided Manhattan Sideways with an in-depth look at each of the five floors.
There are three main organizations residing in the building: The Czech Center, the Consulate General, and the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association. All these organizations work together to promote Czech culture. For anyone who associates "Bohemian" with Queen, Rent, or flowing hippie skirts (which, Cynthia informed me, is true for many people), Bohemia is a region in the Czech Republic that is famous for artistic expression, freedom of speech, and a strong sense of tradition.
We began our tour in the theater on the first floor, where a film club meets on Tuesdays to watch a variety of movies. Cynthia explained that the Czech Center is open to different cultures, and has shown many works by American directors, with the only requirement being that the film must somehow link back to the Czech Republic. She also mentioned that most of the programs at the Bohemian National Hall are completely free, which was especially impressive considering the size and scope of the events.
Cynthia then took us upstairs to see the gallery, which is accessed via a breathtaking spiral staircase. Stepping inside, we observed people setting up for their next exhibit, called "Czech Dream," featuring art that explores the ideas of resignation, expectation, and uncertainty in Czech consciousness. Before moving to the next floor, Cynthia pointed out the meaningful quotes written on the wall in both Czech and English. "This building is a living, breathing thing with its own voice," she explained.
Venturing into the library, we were warmly greeted by Barbara Karpetova, the director of the Czech Center, who encouraged us to wander in the library, which is open to the public and often holds forums and readings. Cynthia then led us to the floor run by the BBLA, formed in 1892 so that Czech visitors to New York would have a place to go and meet with their fellow countrymen. Cynthia showed us a large plaque dedicated to Antonin Dvorak, explaining that the famous composer held concerts in the Bohemian National Hall and that the BBLA owns artifacts from his life, such as hand-written sheet music. We also learned that weddings, conventions, and concerts are still held in the spacious Study Center and recital room on this floor.
Upstairs, our jaws dropped as Cynthia led us into a grand ballroom. The space can hold up to 300 people, not counting the balconies above. The magnificent stage that occupied one wall is a replica of a theater in Prague, and there is a full bar and kitchen off of the ballroom. Over the years, countless musicians, dancers, and theater troupes have performed on the stage. As we stood there, Cynthia enthusiastically mentioned that the Center was looking forward to a new concert series in 2016, called "Prague New York Effects," where Czech and American artists will be working on a collaborative piece. "We like to call it an incubator," Cynthia said. The artists will then visit the Czech Republic to perform their work in Prague.
As we exited the ballroom, we noticed pictures of the renovation that took place in 2008. Cynthia explained that the goal of the renovation was to make the building look "Bold and bright and modern." Everything we saw could certainly be described by those adjectives, including the state-of-the-art dressing rooms that we found on the balcony level. On the other side of the floor, we saw the meeting room in which the Czech president had recently sat. The cherry on the sundae, however, was the rooftop. With an outdoor bar and an area that can be covered against the elements, the roof hosts a variety of events throughout the summer. Cynthia told us that they had shown eight rooftop movies during 2015, subtitled in English, with complimentary champagne and strawberries.
"This is a cultural haven," Cynthia remarked as we were descending - and after exploring the beautiful hall from head to toe, we could not agree more. Cynthia, who commutes in every day from upstate New York, simply announced, "I love my job. When I'm here...it's amazing." With countless events each month (where complimentary Czech beer is frequently served), the Bohemian National Hall should be on any New Yorker's radar. It is a great place to immerse oneself in fine quality Czech culture. Cynthia's closing line of the afternoon said it all, "To the Czech people, art is life."
Ronald McDonald House is a very special place that provides a "temporary 'home away from home' for pediatric cancer patients and their families." Having had an apartment, for a short time, just a few doors down from their 73rd Street location, I was aware of the wonderful work that they do. When I mentioned to Sophie, one of our Manhattan Sideways team members, that I wanted to feature them on 73rd, she lit up and shared her close connection to the organization on the West Coast.Sophie told me that she was honored to visit and help her mother volunteer with her miniature horses at the Los Angeles and Pasadena chapters. "I was immediately won over by their mission, but even more important, by the children themselves. A significant aspect of their programming is to provide children with the opportunity to just be kids, first and foremost. Seeing the kids interact with the miniature horses showed me how much excitement and exuberance these children have. The smiles on the faces of their parents were always equally heart-warming."Ronald McDonald House New York has been providing care and support to families since 1978. They "coordinate emotional and physical services, psychological care, ministry support, wellness programs, tutors, music, art, transportation, activities for siblings, holiday and birthday parties, and camaraderie for parents struggling with their child's cancer diagnosis." In addition, this particular location has a Greek Division that provides services for families from Greece and Cyprus, Camp Ronald McDonald in the summer, classes in English as a second language, therapy for dogs (Angels on a Leash), and Weird Science, where the kids conduct intriguing and engaging experiments.Love and care are Ronald McDonald's central tenants. New York has its own set of angels in the way of the volunteers who play a major role in the day to day lives of the children. The Day Team leads afternoon activities and the Evening Team coordinates birthday parties, holidays, and dinners. The volunteer sign up is a major commitment to help provide a sense of normalcy and strength to the children and their families. If interested in volunteering, please visit their website.
Kate Rheinstein Brodsky, the creator of KRB, was immersed in the world of design and retail from a young age. Her mother, Suzanne Rheinstein, is an internationally recognized designer. Ever since Kate was a child, her mom has run Hollyhock, a Los Angeles furniture boutique. "I really loved retail," Kate shared, telling me how she would go to Hollyhock after school and work there over summer breaks. As a teenager, she wanted to open a bookstore, but realized that this might be difficult in the digital age. As a "homebody" and frequent hostess, Kate knew that she enjoyed creating beautiful homes, both for herself and others. As she described it, "I loved the feeling of home, of having a nice place to live in." Ultimately, her passion for retail manifested itself in a career in the design world.Upon graduating from New York University with a degree in art history, Kate worked for Jeffrey Bilhuber, the interior designer. "I love interior design...but I'm not an interior designer," she said. Working for Jeffrey, however, she learned a lot of things that would help her later on in the world of retail. She realized the importance of customer service and doing things "correctly, in a thoughtful manner." Following her time with Jeffrey, she worked at Elle Decor, which taught her discipline and introduced her to new looks. "I was exposed to so many different styles," she explains. "Sometimes you don't know you like something until you see it." Kate has maintained a good relationship with Elle Decor – they recently featured her Upper East Side apartment as part of their "House Tour," which brought a collection of readers, impressed by her style, to Kate's boutique.When I visited KRB, I was taken by the variety of colors, as opposed to the usual browns and golds that dominate antique shops. The salesperson, Fiona, said that adding bold colors to antique pieces is one of Kate's trademarks. She showed me some traditional chairs with bright olive green seats as an example, saying, "Green's a big color for her," before pointing out Kate's love for French opaline. Fiona went on to say that Kate could be inspired by anything. She spoke of a box of old cameos that Kate found. When Fiona inquired, "What are you going to do with those?" Kate answered matter of factly, "I don't know, but I'll figure it out." Kate elaborated, "I like to reinterpret old things." By this, she means both in the pieces, as with the chairs, and in the way they are used. She told me that there are many beautiful finger bowls out there that are no longer used - or at least not as finger bowls. Kate encourages customers to use them in new ways, by putting votive candles in them or a small scoop of strawberry ice cream. "I like taking things out of their original context," she admitted. As another example, she told me about the tric trac tables, tables used to play a precursor to backgammon. The board is so similar to backgammon that the tables have been able to be repurposed."I get very attached to furniture," Kate admitted, likening different pieces to rescue animals. "I want them to have good homes." She realizes, however, that people have different styles and that she may have to wait a while for the right person to come along. She added that although her mother heavily influenced her, the two women do not always see eye to eye on design. "We have our own taste," she said. Despite their differences, the store is still inspired by her mother's extraordinary career. "I always love watching her, how she explains to people how to incorporate beauty into their life."There is the possibility that a third generation of Rheinstein women might enter the world of design. In 2015, Kate was the proud mom of new daughter number three. "I love that my children comprehend what I do," she told me. When they ask her where she is going, she can answer "to the store" and they know exactly where she will be. Owning the boutique means she has a flexible work schedule and can easily spend a lot of time with her children. She specifically opened on the Upper East Side to be near her family – and other families. She wanted to be in a place where people could stumble upon her and buy a housewarming present, rather than in a design-industry-heavy neighborhood. "I just hope I'm on people's path. I encourage them to come look....browsers welcome." As for her daughters and what they think of her boutique, Kate told me that her five-year-old recently told her teacher that when she grows up, she wants to be "a mommy and a shopkeeper."
Session 73 is the everyman's live music bar. With a casual vibe and bands that always get the crowd moving, the space is the essential neighborhood watering hole. Ryan Morrissey, the general manager, spoke about the bar's origins and the reason for its success.Corby Thomas, the owner of Session 73, noticed that there was no venue for live music on the Upper East Side. He opened the bar in 2000, but as a harmonica player, he really wanted to bring in blues and funk groups. The neighborhood, however, made its wishes known and embraced cover rock. "Music is the life blood of this place," Ryan said, adding, "Musicians like being here." Some of the bands return multiple times, including "The Characters" who have been performing at Session since 2002. Many of the bands play "just to have a good time," whereas others are often school teachers or engineers, performing here as an outlet for their creative side. This attitude seems to resonate well with the patrons, as they, too, are able to get into the music. According to Ryan, "People get goofy and have a good time," causing the bar to become "really high energy at night," with people dancing and singing along.It is not solely about the music: the food and drink have also attracted attention. The bar's sliders have been especially popular since day one, and the innovative cocktails on the menu are often requested, especially since two employees, Lauren and Christina, started infusing their own liquors behind the bar. On the day that some of us from Manhattan Sideways stopped in, the glass vats of cucumber lychee and cucumber lemon gin were about to be switched over to pumpkin spice vodka for the fall. The Moscow mule was mixed to perfection while the special of the day, a cucumber martini, was refreshing. We also tried Ryan's personal favorite, the Strawberry Habanero Margarita with smoked paprika salt on the edge. His description works best: "It doesn't hit you hard, but then you feel it." Finally, we sampled a bright red "wicked lemonade" made with a house-made mixed berry simple syrup.As we sipped on the concoctions, I asked Ryan about the crowds that they receive. He explained that they get all sorts of people visiting Session 73, but that most are locals rather than tourists. Because of this, they often are quite well-dressed. There is no dress code, but people on the Upper East Side "tend to want to look their best." The busiest day, oddly enough, is Sunday. "It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," Ryan said, wide-eyed, describing the big rush that occurs on what is considered to be the slowest day for most businesses.Ryan showed us to the Session 73's back room, which is used for private events and holds up to eighty people. A variety of functions happen in this room: Ryan is especially proud of the charity events that the bar hosts, but the back room has seen everything from first birthday parties to funeral wakes. "The bar is here for its neighbors through all stages of life," Ryan offered. "People meet and get married and have kids in this bar." He should know - Ryan met his wife at Session 73. In closing, Ryan shared that his neighborhood staple inspires the locals. When he stands out front, he often hears someone reminiscing about the time that they have spent here. Some of his favorite lines have been, "Remember when we were there last weekend," or "That was a wild night," and, of course, "I love that place!"
Mario Guerrero, a black belt, has made a name for himself in the martial arts world for helping at-risk kids by giving them training in discipline, fitness, and hand-eye coordination. He now has studios scattered throughout the city, from Tribeca to the Upper East Side, where children and adults alike can learn kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Mixed Martial Arts. Recently, Krav Maga, a form of Israeli street fighting, has been added to the roster. Modern Martial Arts advertises classes for everyone from "casual fitness seekers to trained, professional fighters." The studio does more than offer classes; however: they also create a community. Mario and his trained teachers offer karate birthday parties, fitness-centered movie nights, and "Parent's Night Out" evening classes for kids.We met with Adam, who was teaching an adult mixed martial arts class. He greeted each of the students who walked in with warmth and humor. Once the class began, the group transitioned from generic fitness exercises to work with punching bags and finally horizontal punching bags where the studio members practiced their "ground pounds." Watching Adam encourage his students to let out a "pshhh" sound each time they hit, I realized that the class was a terrific way to let off steam.