History of the District
Background and Context
Located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Czech Village / New Bohemia Main Street District straddles the banks of the Cedar River on the city’s southeast side. Just south of the city’s primary downtown business district, the Main Street District (one of the first urban neighborhood models in the state) fosters connectivity to shared amenities and attractions while maintaining its own unique culture and feel.
The Main Street District is made up of two diverse neighborhoods, Czech Village and New Bohemia, spanning approximately forty blocks bounded by 8th Avenue SE, the former Union Pacific railroad line, and former Sinclair site on the east side of the river as well as three blocks centered on 16th Avenue SW from 1st Street SW to the river. Cedar Rapids is part of the greater Iowa Cultural Corridor which encompasses Linn and Johnson counties as well as nine adjacent counties. With a population of more than 126,000 residents, Cedar Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Iowa.
The Czech Village / New Bohemia Main Street District has a storied past and stands as a shining example of the perseverance of its residents and business owners. Carrying on the legacy of early Czech settlement, the District represents a wide mix of small businesses; arts, culture and entertainment venues; and former industrial sites.
Early Settlement Patterns
In 1871, a new company, T.M. Sinclair meatpacking, began operations in Cedar Rapids across the street from the new Czech social hall in the downtown business district. The new industry was welcomed by city leaders but there were concerns about “questionable odors” from this particular location so close to the young city’s downtown area.
At the encouragement of community leaders, the following year, 1872, Sinclair relocated his slaughterhouse/packing plant to the south end of Third Street East of the Cedar River. This single action changed the course of Czech settlement patterns in Cedar Rapids. The new Sinclair plant was very successful and a large amount of new workers were needed within the first few years. The nearby Bohemian immigrant population suddenly had a good new source of long term sustainable employment.
Word got out to friends and relatives of the Cedar Rapids Czech community in Europe and waves of new Bohemians arrived in Cedar Rapids throughout the 1870’s, knowing employment was available at the new Sinclair plant. The previously undeveloped area between the downtown and the Sinclair plant quickly became populated with Czech immigrant housing.
Further evidence of rapid growth for the new South End neighborhood included the construction of a new iron bridge across the Cedar River at 14th Avenue east (16th Avenue west) to help facilitate traffic coming and going to the Sinclair plant from farmlands west of the river. St. Wenceslaus Catholic church was established in 1874 near the packinghouse. The first brick church edifice was completed in 1882.
Commercial buildings housing Bohemian immigrant businesses began sprouting up on street corners closer to the packinghouse and away from the earlier established Czech settlement area near downtown Cedar Rapids. The earliest commercial buildings to appear were at the intersection of 14th Avenue and Third Street SE. These included storefront “blocks” erected by families such as Petrovitsky and Lesinger in the 1880’s.
The 1880’s saw the influx of additional job source industries in the new Bohemian neighborhood, the “South End.” The area had excellent railroad access, which made it easier for companies such as Whiting’s Foundry, the Star Wagon Works and the J.G. Cherry Company to locate in this area. The factories tended to locate near the south extension of Downtown Cedar Rapids’ 4th Street railroad corridor. Thus the areas between the tracks and the river rapidly filled with an eclectic mix of distinctively “neat and frugal” Czech immigrant residences.
As the 1890’s approached, the majority of Cedar Rapids Bohemian commercial businesses had located in the South End neighborhood, creating a “Little Bohemia.” Plans were made to build a grand new CSPS Hall at the corner of 11th Avenue and Third Street SE to replace the 1870 structure in the downtown area. The new structure’s cornerstone was laid on October 30, 1890 with great ceremony. The splendid new CSPS Hall was dedicated in June of 1891 and the appearance of this grand three story structure helped permanently establish that this was the center of the Cedar Rapids Czech community.
Between 1900 and 1910, the city of Cedar Rapids designated the area to the north of what is now New Bohemia, as a wholesale/warehouse/manufacturing district. Almost overnight, entire blocks of the first Czech settlement area of Cedar Rapids were demolished and replaced by structures such as large scale wholesale/warehouse buildings, a lumberyard, an ice cream factory, and three major railroad freight houses.
Although the majority of the Czech businesses had moved to the south of this area by 1900, the few remaining had to scramble for new locations. This included the Sokol Gymnastic Association of Cedar Rapids, originally known as the Jednota Tyrs Association. The Sokols had initially used the old CSPS building at 5th Avenue & First Street SE and had just built a new Sokol Turner Hall at 7th Avenue near Third Street SE in 1901. Because of the new railroad freight station developments, the Sokols were faced with finding a new location in 1908. Interestingly, rather than choose a location in the South End, a lot was chosen at 417 Third Street SE, closer to downtown and a half block from the Cedar Rapids passenger train station. The new Sokol gymnasium had a grand opening in January of 1909. Today, it is the only surviving building standing of Czech heritage in the first and earliest Czech settlement neighborhood of Cedar Rapids.
South of Ninth Avenue SE, the second Czech settlement neighborhood of the city continued to thrive and grow after 1900. In 1901, the very first building in the United States built for a Czech School was opened at 925 Second Street SE. The Czech School (Matice Skolska) had begun in Cedar Rapids in 1870 and is recognized as the oldest continuously operated ethnic school in the country. The Czech School was the site of a lecture given by Thomas G. Masaryk on September 13, 1907. The man who played a great role in the formation of Czechoslovakia in the years to come was met with great enthusiasm by the Mayor and citizens of Cedar Rapids.
Impressive new building projects were completed in the South End area between 1890 and 1920, particularly along Third Street and 14th Avenue SE. Substantial commercial storefront buildings continued to appear, including the P. Matyk Dry Goods store in 1893 across the street from the new CSPS Hall and a series of commercial storefronts at 1119-1129 Third Street SE.
The intersection of Third Street and 12th Avenue became the location of two major improvements. First was in 1908 with the erection of the ZCBJ (Zapadni Cesko-Bratrska Jednota) Hall on the southeast corner and the completion of the new Iowa State Savings Bank in 1917 at the southwest corner. In addition, three movie theatres showing silent films were opened in the neighborhood between 1911 and 1915. These included the Ideal Theatre at 215 14th Avenue SE, the Praha Theatre at 227 14th Avenue SE and the Olympic (later the Strand) at 1124 Third Street SE. The Olympic also offered small stage performances, adding to the rich cultural choices available in the South End district.
Third Czech Settlement Area of Cedar Rapids…16th Avenue SW (Czech Village)
Prior to 1900, the core of the Czech business community was almost entirely focused on the east side of the Cedar River only. The area known today as “Czech Village,” centered on 16th avenue SW, was not a primary Czech settlement neighborhood in the late 19th century in Cedar Rapids. However, 16th Avenue SW was a small commercial district as early as the late 1880’s. The street was a main pass- through for traffic coming from rural areas to the west and going into the Sinclair packinghouse across the bridge on the east side.
Records show that the earliest residents and business owners on 16th Avenue SW were a “melting pot” mixture of primarily Italian, Russian and Syrian (Lebanese) immigrants. Some of these non-Czech ethnic names still exist along the top of a couple of commercial buildings in the Czech Village today. This is not to say there were not any Czech immigrants living on the west side, but the numbers were more consistent with other ethnic groups.
Several factors led to a sudden shift of the Czech population and business district after 1900, and particularly from 1910-1940. Primary of these was the aforementioned shift in downtown development on the east side beginning in 1900 as the northern, oldest downtown section of Czech settlement areas were removed for a warehouse/freight station district.
In 1903, a large new industry, the Douglas Starch Works (now Penford Products), began operations on the west bank of the river. This new source of good steady jobs encouraged many residents of Bohemian descent to consider moving across the river.
A third contributing factor was the completion of a new, sturdy concrete bridge connecting 14th Avenue east with 16th avenue west. The new 1910 bridge replaced the old iron span bridge erected in 1875. Also, as late as 1905, much of the west side of Cedar Rapids south and west of 16th Avenue was largely undeveloped and was an attractive alternative to the more established (and noisier) neighborhoods on the east side. Better access to automobiles meant that residents could live a little farther from the business districts of the city.
As the west side residential area rapidly expanded, so did public and social amenities such as the opening of new schools such as Hayes Elementary and Wilson School, and churches such as St. Ludmila’s Catholic built new structures by 1930.
All of these factors made 16th Avenue SW from the west approach of the bridge and extending two and a half blocks to the west very attractive and lucrative to build a more formalized retail and service district that could feature shops and businesses owned and operated by Czech speaking families.
As early as 1906, the “Industrial Club of 16th Avenue West” was established. Later known as the 16th Avenue Commercial Club, the organization functioned as a chamber of commerce to promote and support the efforts of Czech businesses. These efforts paid off, and within a few years, 16th Avenue SW was established as a major shopping district for Cedar Rapids, second only to the downtown area between 1920 and 1960.
The effect of 16th Avenue SW on the older “South End” district on the east side was a reduction in some key retail businesses. However, the primary social centers of the Czech community, such as CSPS and ZCBJ, continued on the east side well into the mid-20th century and both neighborhoods flourished as established Czech centers of activity.
In 1973, the Czech Heritage Foundation, in the interests of preserving Cedar Rapids Czech traditions and history, began forming the concept of 16th Avenue SW as a “Czech Village” to appeal to the tourist trade. In October of 1975, much of the third settlement area was officially named Czech Village.
South End, the second Czech settlement area for Cedar Rapids, experienced the effects of the closing of the old Sinclair packinghouse site in 1990. But since 2000, there have been increasing efforts to reconnect with this area’s historic past and focus on historic preservation. This area has been named “New Bohemia.”
Flood of 2008
The Great Flood of June 2008 devastated both the Czech Village and New Bohemia areas with floodwaters rising more than eight feet high in most buildings. Virtually all of the businesses and residential structures in the District were heavily damaged. Many property owners sold and left the area, while others stayed put and began the arduous task of rehabilitation.
Through the dedication and collaborative efforts of several leaders in the community, many key businesses and organizations in the Main Street District were among the first to reopen among the flood affected throughout Cedar Rapids. Despite the level of destruction experienced, members of the community have expressed their commitment to not just rebuild, but to preserve the unique character and historic assets of the area.
Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District Established
The Czech Village / New Bohemia (CV/NB) Main Street District was formed in May of 2009 to breathe economic life into a historic area of Cedar Rapids. Established by Czech immigrants, the Main Street District had suffered economic decline for many years and was nearly destroyed by record flooding in 2008. Despite these hardships, courageous business owners and residents began the task of rebuilding.
The proven success of the Main Street model as an incremental process for economic development and historic preservation has shown to be effective in helping to assist business and property owners to rebuild post-flood. Numerous grant opportunities have been facilitated by the CV/NB Main Street program including a $75,000 façade grant, Main Street Iowa Challenge grants, and I-Jobs funding.
Optimism is evident throughout the Main Street District. Construction is prevalent and new investments are announced regularly. The creative cultural community has embraced the District bringing new and return visitors who spread the word about the exciting improvements. Thorough consistent application of Main Street’s Four Point Approach®, Czech Village/New Bohemia will continue to be Cedar Rapids desired location to live, work, and play.