Resilience: My Husband, A Museum & Alphonse Mucha, Part 2

Resilience: My Husband, A Museum & Alphonse Mucha, Part 2

Resilience: My Husband, A Museum & Alphonse Mucha, Part 2

 When my friend and I drove into Czech Village in south Cedar Rapids, Iowa last week we witnessed the true meaning of resilience.  The town is miraculously bouncing back from their disastrous Flood of 2008. Four years ago, on June 13, the Cedar River crested to its highest level in Cedar Rapids history, 31.12 feet. The flood’s waters penetrated 10 square miles. It impacted 7,198 parcels, including 5,390 houses, dislocated more than 18,000 residents and damaged 310 City facilities. 41,771 tons of flood debris had to be removed. Cedar Rapids was changed forever.

Most of the stores along 16th Street in Czech Village were submerged in eight to ten feet of water and muck. Sadly, many homes and businesses were lost to the flood. But, it was heartening to see how many were rebuilt or are in the process of restoration. Despite the level of destruction, the community has expressed a firm desire to rebuild and preserve the unique character of the neighborhood.

Cedar Rapids is the settling place for a large population of immigrants which came from Bohemia and Moravia between 1864 and the early 1900’s. Many came to work in the thriving meat packing and cereal plants. The Village is a restored section of what was the shopping district for many of the immigrants. Through the years the town has hung on to its Czechness; and this small, struggling neighborhood still seems determined to maintain a link with these settlers and their homeland.

As we parked our car we were enticed by the scents of freshly baked bread and pastries. The aroma led us to Sykora’s Bakery, housed in a century old, white clapboard general store-like building with benches in front. We sampled their Czechoslovak fare – goulash, cucumber salad, Bohemian caraway rye bread and kolaches. The owner, John Rocarek told us the story of their comeback from the flood. And he showed us the remaining wall of their gigantic century old oven, now a casualty of the disaster. When John found out I was from Detroit he honored me by asking me to mark the city with a map pin on his huge world map on a back wall. He said I was the first visitor from Michigan since the flood.

We left the bakery, browsed through antique store windows and finally approached the restored and expanded National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.   We couldn’t enter it until the grand opening the next day. I stared with amazement at the handsome structure and remembered remarks I read made by Gail Naughton the museum director, when she talked about how far the organization has come since the Cedar River floodwaters nearly submerged the museum.

“It draws strength out of you that you didn’t even know you had,” Naughton said of the devastation. “I just never hesitated. I never thought we wouldn’t come back. I didn’t want the flood to win.”

It would have been easy to give up.

The next day when we visited the museum, we were welcomed by the sparkling 400 pound, eight foot Czech crystal chandelier in the grand entry hall. Its more than 1,000 crystals and 48 bulbs had been reassembled with care. The fixture, untouched by the flood, was taken down in 2010 for safekeeping when the museum was moved 480 feet and relocated onto a parking garage, raising the building eleven feet higher – three feet above the 2008 flood level. An addition was built with three state-of-the-art galleries, an amphitheater and a theater.  More than $25 million was raised for flood recovery from local, national and international sources.

The interior and finishes of the restored building expressed warmth and beauty. It was hard to believe that ten feet of water and layers of muck once coated the floor and artifacts. Our next stop was the museum library with a visit to the museum store along the way. .  

I’m a librarian so visiting the new museum library was a must.  The Skula Bartizal Library is 5,500 square feet, six times larger than the previous space. It includes a media room, a research room, a comfortable seating area and three public access computers. The collection is multi-lingual (Czech, Slovak, English) including books, periodicals, AV materials and archival materials.

Flood-affected library and collection items are still in the process of being conserved. In late 2008, the library director took possession of the nearly 600 boxes of flood-damaged books that had been washed and freeze-dried. Approximately 6,000 volumes! One thousand sixty-seven flood-damaged artifacts, mostly textiles, were assessed by the Chicago Conservation Center, completing the first phase of conservation. It will take years to reorganize, inventory and restore or replace lost or damaged library and artifact collections. The following link gives information on damage and restoration of museum books and other materials.

We were fortunate to meet David Muhlena, Library Director. He gave us a brief tour and then took us to a room where oral video histories were being continuously shown:

Recording Voices & Documenting Memories of Czech and Slovak Americans is an oral history project started by the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in 2009. The project captures and preserves the stories of resilient Czechs and Slovaks who left their homeland during the Cold War and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Cleveland, New York City and Washington, D. C.  As of autumn 2011, the NCSML is recording the stories of immigrants who came to the United States after the fall of communism in 1989 as well.

On the project’s website, you can watch video extracts from interviews, look at photos and other archive materials, and read biographies of Czechs and Slovaks who began a new life in the United States.

Thirty-six of the oral histories included are of Czechs and Slovaks who discuss involvement with the Czech Resistance. I wish my husband Charles had lived long enough to be a part of this project. He was an excellent public speaker and had quite a history and story to tell.

For further information on the library and oral history project, contact Rosie Johnston, Oral History Project Coordinator at or David Muhlena, Library Director at

Stay tuned for Part III of “Resilience: My Husband, A Museum & Alphonse Mucha.”

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