Twenty-five years ago, on Oct. 21, 1995, three presidents — U.S. President Bill Clinton, Czech President Vaclav Havel and Slovak President Michal Kovac — were in Cedar Rapids to dedicate the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, a project that was decades in the making.
The museum paid tribute to the large number of Czech immigrants who started arriving in Linn County in the 1860s to buy land and farm it. Many of them later worked in the meatpacking plants and established businesses, churches and social clubs.
“Records indicate that Linn County has a greater number of people who claim Bohemia as their birthplace than any other similar area in America,” Czech native and Gazette reporter T.B. Hlubucek wrote in a 1946 story. “Cedar Rapids, with approximately 17,000 Czechs, has perhaps the largest percentage — nearly one-fourth — of any city in the United States.”
By 1975, people with Czech lineage comprised 25 percent to 30 percent of Cedar Rapids’ population, second only to those of German ancestry.
The Czech Fine Arts Foundation, formed in 1974, opened the first museum in 1978 in a home at 1607 C St. SW.
Four years later, the foundation leased an empty brick building from the city. The building, at 10 16th Ave. SW, on the banks of the Cedar River, had formerly housed Dowie Outdoor Advertising.
After a remodel using both contract and volunteer labor, the museum opened to the public with a 30-by-54-foot display area and a library in the balcony.
The Riverside Roundhouse was near the back of the building and the two facilities shared parking. Museum display cases were refurbished from ones that had been used in Sykora Bakery, a Czech Village cornerstone.
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The museum was soon filled with what was described in as “the nation’s largest collection of Czech ethnic artifacts.”
In 1984, a pioneer home owned for more than a century by the Sleger family was moved from 1217 First St. SE to a spot behind the museum, restored and furnished to reflect life in a Czech home from 1880 to 1900.
BUILDING THE MUSEUM
On April 15, 1994, the Cedar Rapids City Council received a request for a long-term lease of city property on the west side of the Cedar River between the 12th and 16th Avenue bridges and A Street SW for a new Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
On Oct. 7, plans were revealed for the museum. Fundraising for the 14,000-square-foot museum had already begun with $400,000 from the Czech community. Cedar Rapids businesses set a goal of $750,000 and the Hall-Perrine Foundation issued a $750,000 challenge grant that offered $1 for every $1.50 raised.
Ground was broken Oct. 28, 1993.
Offices in the unfinished museum opened in March 1995, but permanent exhibits weren’t ready until the October grand opening. Temporary exhibits were set up in the museum library.
The day of the library’s dedication began with a high-level security check.
Early in the morning, agents asked everyone to leave the museum while a half-dozen dogs searched for explosives. Metal detectors, set up to scan those who were entering, sounded when they encountered the metal commemorative buttons made for the occasion.
Agents also required business owners in the surrounding neighborhood to lock their back doors and not allow anyone to use them while the presidents were at the museum. The old Czech museum nearby provided a rooftop vantage point for black-clad agents to scan the area.
Spectators, arriving at the museum site early Saturday to find a good viewing spot, dealt with 20-degree temperatures. Spectators wrapped themselves in blankets, holding cups of hot chocolate or coffee to warm their hands. Some gave up and ducked into nearby stores to watch the event on TV.
“My feet are freezing, my legs are numb, my back’s killing me,” said Ray Woodhouse of Sutliff, who stood on a boulder to get a good photo of the presidents. “But it’s a good spot. I got my picture.”
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More than 10,000 people, including busloads from Czech communities across the nation, came to the dedication, which was covered by scores of U.S. journalists and 10 journalists from the Czech Republic.
Kovac and Havel had arrived in Cedar Rapids on Friday night, with Kovac staying overnight at the Collins Plaza Hotel and Havel at the Five Seasons.
At 10:05 a.m. Saturday, Air Force One landed at the Cedar Rapids airport. A half-hour later, the three presidents were at the museum. At 11:45 a.m., they signed the presidents’ kiosk in the museum foyer and toured the library.
Clinton next met privately with Havel and Kovac together, then separately, before leaving the museum.
The three presidents took the stage, sitting in leather recliners that had been fixed so they wouldn’t recline.
In his remarks to the crowd, Clinton paid tribute to his fellow presidents who were leading their countries toward democracy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain.
“I’m proud to stand here with these two presidents, each a pioneer and a patriot, each leading his nation through an epic transformation, each representing the promise of Europe’s future, and their presence today reflects our growing partnership as well as the deep roots of their people in the soil of Iowa,” he said.
“One in five residents of Cedar Rapids is of Czech descent, including your mayor,” Clinton said, referring to Mayor Larry Serbousek.
Havel, a poet, talked about the values that propelled Czechs immigrating to the United States.
Antonin Dvorak, he said, referring to the famed composer, “was neither the first nor last Czech to undertake this kind of journey. Many of our fellow countrymen eventually settled here in Cedar Rapids. They came here to Iowa to find freedom, prosperity and mutual tolerance. It was here that they felt that ‘this is the land,’ which, as I have been told, is the original meaning of the word of Iowa.”
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Kovac focused on good relations between the Slovak Republic and the United States, which “in spite of a number of differences, do share a lot. We share our common struggle for democracy and humanity, and also the fact that two small Central European nations have long-lasting, positive relations to the United States, where part of their history took place.”
A STOP AT SYKORA’S
After the dedication, Clinton and his wife, Hillary, made an impromptu stop at Sykora Bakery, which they’d heard about en route from the airport.
Bakery owner Don Janda was returning to his business from the museum ceremonies as the presidential limousine pulled up. The Secret Service at first barred him from entering until learning he owned the bakery.
“Hillary wanted an apple strudel,” Janda later told a reporter. “The president had a cherry kolach.”
Sen. Tom Harkin and his wife, Ruth, head of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., joined the Clintons on Air Force One for the return trip to Washington, D.C.
Before boarding, Harkin told reporters, “This was a great event for Cedar Rapids. The first time three presidents from three countries have ever been in Iowa. That’s phenomenal.”
Air Force One departed at 3 p.m., but the festivities at the museum and Czech Village continued with a parade, a Mass at St. Wenceslaus Church and an ambassadors’ reception.
And then a flood
The museum went on to host many exhibits in the past 25 years and, in 1998, installed the magnificent 400-pound chandelier from the Czech Republic that graces its entryway.
When the museum flooded in 2008, then-Director Gail Naughton mounted a drive to jack up the 3-million-pound museum and move it, inch by inch, farther from the river and up a 480-foot man-made hill. The refurbished and expanded museum reopened in 2012 on a new street, named Inspiration Place SW.