A.P.O./Casa de la Cultura Building, Chicago


[A.P.O./Casa de la Cultura Building, Chicago (1892) /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

There once was a time when the city of Chicago was home to the largest Bohemian
population in the U.S. - and we're talking the country/region of Europe not the artist/poet type. The Kingdom of Bohemia first showed-up in the history books as Boihaeum which the Romans wrote about when they invaded the region. Eventually the Čechy peoples were swallowed-up by the Austro-Hungarian empire, and after an unsuccessful revolution in 1848 Czech's started migrating to the U.S., with a majority of them landing in Chicago.


[A.P.O./Casa de la Cultura, 1440 W. 18th Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

A large community of Czech nationals settled in and around Halsted and Canal Streets, but after the fire in 1871 burned them out, they resettled further south along 18th Street from Halsted west to Ashland Avenue, and the neighborhood came to be called Pilsen - an Anglicized version of Bohemia's third largest city, Plzeň. 18th Street became the heart of an ever growing Czech community, and by 1880 over 170,000 Bohemian immigrants lived within walking distance of the thoroughfare. Many of the former Austro-Hungarian subjects were skilled craftsmen who found work in the industrial and manufacturing plants located nearby along the south branch of the Chicago River. And they not only built homes, shops, and churches, but erected community centers where area residents could hold large meetings, offer indoor athletic activities, and have a Pilsner beer or two.


[Czesky Slavonsky Americky Sokol (C.S.A.S.), 18th Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1892 two, grand, limestone edifices rose on 18th Street, one built by an individual as a commercial enterprise named Thalia Hall, and the other by the Czesky Slavonsky Americky Sokol (C.S.A.S.). The Sokol movement was started in Bohemia in the early 1860s under the notion that a healthy mind and body creates a stronger individual
. The Sokols were supposed to be apolitical, but if all this brain stimulating physical activity happened to produce a generation of physically and intellectually well-trained men and women who just might question the oppressive authority of the Austro-Hungarian invaders, well so be it. Back in Chicago, the 5-story Sokol on 18th Street included a large 2-story second floor lecture hall - with balcony and stage - which could accommodate up to 2,000 people; a gymnasium; and for good measure, a ground floor saloon. The Bohemian-American Hall provided meeting space for the largest Bohemian women's organization in the world the Jednota Ceskych Dam, as well as the Svobodna obec Chicagu, or Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers of Chicago, a very politically active secular organization that attracted a large working class following in their fight against what they considered the oppression of the Roman Catholic church. After the Second World War drew to a close, first, second and third generation Bohemian-Czech's began to make way for a new wave of immigration into Pilsen - from Mexico.


[Asociacion Pro-Derechos Obreros (A.P.O) - Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez/Taller Mestizarte, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1950 the majority of Pilsen's population was still firmly rooted in Bohemia. By 1970
over half of the residents were of Mexican descent, and by 1980, 97% of the population was Hispanic. Although the letters C.S.A.S were still carved into the stone arch above the central doorway of the former Sokol, the building became the home of Templo Smyrna. In 1982, after sitting vacant for 7 years, the labor rights organization Asociacion Pro-Derechos Obreros (A.P.O.) purchased the decaying structure for $25,000 with plans to return the building to viability as an arts center. Today the grand limestone structure houses Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez Taller/Mestizarte in Pilsen's expanding, and some might say, Bohemian art community.

See more of 18th Street at: Thalia Hall.

 
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