century-old secrets on 71st Street History

| 06 Jun 2016 | 04:30

Hidden away at 71st Street and York Avenue is a place where Czech immigration, gymnastics, Puccini, and the Velvet Underground all intersect.

At first glance, Sokol New York might just resemble another fitness club, and the children's tae-kwon-do classes on the bottom level would do nothing to disprove that theory. How then to explain the pictures lining the walls of famous Czech Olympians or the Times article declaring 420 East 71st street “A 2-Story Survivor Amid Upper East Side High-Rises?”

The original Czech Sokol organization started in 1862, in Prague. St Louis, Missouri got a Sokol in 1865, and New York's would open in 1867 before moving to its current building in 1896 -- marking its 120th anniversary. The organization attracted Czech immigrants from around the neighborhood, including many who worked at cigar factories throughout the city. Kids who attended spoke Czech.

Eventually, the Czechs moved out, as assimilation changed the face of the neighborhood. “As the immigrants became more successful, they wanted to move to suburbia, [and] they wanted the American Dream,” said Ed Chandla, president of the Sokol library. “The neighborhood was no longer 40,000, 50,000 Czechs and Slovaks, but rather, a dwindling number of old timers, people that were comfortable enough to stay here and had good jobs.” Chlanda's own family did the same - they “moved to a suburb called Astoria”.

Members of this Sokol included several Olympians, including the late gymnast Marie Provaznikova, who defected during the Olympics and immigrated to the United States, becoming president of Sokol New York and teaching gymnastics for most of her life. Several Czech Sokol members also went on to fight in both world wars (the list of people is tucked away on a plaque towards the edge of the gym). When looking at the plaque, Chlanda describes one man who met his wife at one of the socials before joining the Air Force in Scotland. Tragically, his bomber plane crashed while on the way to meet his wife in London, who was working in the Czech embassy.

Music has also been central to Sokol New York's culture. (Maybe the Sokol culture in general too; there's a Sokol building in Nebraska with a music venue underneath.) Lou Reed performed several concerts here with his band, art-rock legends the Velvet Underground, in 1967. Andy Warhol wrote in the book POPism that “The Gymnasium was the ultimate 60s place for me, because we left it exactly as it was with the mats, the parallel bars, weights straps and barbells... When you look again at something you've always taken for granted, you see it fresh, and it's a good Pop experience.” While there have not been as many concerts since -- an attempt to do a tribute concert fell through when Reed passed away in 2013 -- the concert here remains a famous moment for both the band and the Sokol building. It remains one even now; a 2014 reissue of VU's album White Light/White Heat included an official recording of a gymnasium performance after years of bootlegs circulating.

For a short period of time, Sokol would house a discotheque on weekends. A rival disco, fearing competition, firebombed and seriously damaged the gymnasium in 1971, leaving burn marks that remain on the gym floor today. For many years, as “nobody ever has enough insurance after a fire,” the gym was stuck with a cheap renovation, with everything covered up in plywood. Finally, in 2011, Chlanda stepped in for a restoration, making it resemble the old pre-firebombed state as much as possible.

Today, it's difficult to tell the gym was once a disco, or indeed, once housed everyone from Olympians to operas to cult heroes. But taking a moment to look around shows how long the history is, and the miracle that it stays standing.