CEDAR RAPIDS — A hard hat on the file cabinet in Gail Naughton’s new office serves as a reminder of her past four years with the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
While she no longer has a need for it, the white construction hat also reminds Naughton — the museum’s CEO and president — of how far the organization has come since Cedar River floodwaters nearly submerged the building in June 2008.
“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.
Layers of muck coated the floor and the artifacts left behind after a makeshift dike gave way to the raging floodwaters. A heavy table broke through an entrance window. Mounds of sand covered sidewalks after waters receded. Staff who entered the building, at 30 16th Ave. SW, covered their faces with masks that did nothing to hide the stench of floodwaters.
Despite that, the museum — dedicated by three presidents in 1995 — has done more than rebuild.
Last summer, the structure was relocated onto a parking garage, raising the building 11 feet higher than its previous elevation, or three feet above the 2008 flood level. An addition was built, bringing the 17,000-square-foot museum to 50,000-square-feet, with three state-of-the-art galleries, an amphitheater, a 51-seat theater and amenities the previous building didn’t have.
The expanded museum, to be showcased during a two-day celebration Saturday, July 14, and Sunday, July 15, was made possible through local, national and international assistance. More than $25 million was raised during a capital campaign for flood recovery that included 310 individual donations; $10 million from the state I-JOBS program; a Vision Iowa grant of $2.9 million; and $405,380 from the Czech Republic.
“Within a week of the flood, the general consul (Marek Skolil of Chicago) and his deputy consul came over,” Naughton said.
She noted that Americans, including many Iowans, sent financial aid to the Czech Republic after 2002 floods devastated the Czech capital of Prague.
“They remembered that and said right away that they wanted to help,” Naughton said. “I talked to both ambassadors a day later (after the 2008 flood), and they were both just very caring.”
Petr Gandalovic, Czech ambassador to the United States, plans to attend next weekend’s grand opening, his second visit to Cedar Rapids. Gandalovic said the museum has been a valuable partner of the Czech Republic.
“Without any doubt, the museum presents a bridge between the United States and the Czech Republic, and offers Americans an opportunity to learn about Czech history and culture,” he said.
Gandalovic did not hold his post at the time of the flood but compared it to the 2002 floods in the Czech Republic.
“I have to say that I felt the same level of solidarity among the people during both disasters,” he said. “This kind of solidarity and our appreciation for the preservation of the Czech heritage in Cedar Rapids were the key factors for the decision of the Czech government to provide assistance to the museum after the flood.”
The museum was founded in Cedar Rapids in 1974 to preserve ethnic items, including native costumes called kroje, and the largest U.S. collection of Czech and Slovak artifacts. Ground was broken for the new building in 1993, and the museum opened to great fanfare in 1995.
Residents from 18 countries visited the museum’s Kosek building, 87 16th Ave. SW, where its offices were relocated in 2010. Still, many people in the Cedar Rapids area have never visited what others travel miles to see.
Eating lunch at the Red Frog, 88 16th Ave. SW, one of the Czech Village businesses to reopen after the flood, Dawn Price of Mount Vernon said she has been to museums in Chicago and elsewhere but not this one in her own backyard.
“If I knew a little more about Czech history, maybe I’d be enticed to visit,” said Price, a nurse at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. “I’m really curious now. It looks so huge.”
Naughton said part of the museum’s new mission is to connect people of all backgrounds to its programs and exhibits.
Most Americans have ancestors who immigrated to the United States, with the same language barriers and challenges Czechs and Slovaks faced, she said. “We all share that in our background.”
“Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau” will be one of the featured exhibitions in the expanded museum, with 230 paintings, sculptures and other items from the Czech art nouveau painter displayed in its only American showing. Another exhibit features the kroje that were painstakingly restored after the flood, while an exhibit from Slovakia displays art from children’s books.
Grants have helped fund some of the 18 full-time and eight part-time museum staff, up from 12 at the time of the flood.
The museum expects 45,000 visitors annually, up from 35,000 preflood, and 10,000 next weekend alone.
Marilee Fowler, president and CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that already, the museum is drawing visitors to Cedar Rapids. She cited bus tours and at least one conference — the Iowa Association of Business and Industry — among those scheduled to come.
“Part of the sell was booking an event at that facility,” Fowler said of the conference.
Jennifer Pruden, executive director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District, said the museum will help boost business at restaurants and shops on both sides of the river.
“It’s definitely going to be a big draw for visitors,” she said. “The expanded museum is incredible. It’s just jaw-dropping how nice the space is.”
Alex Andersen said business at Ernie’s Tavern, 69 16th Ave. SW, has never been better, but he expects even more with the museum reopening. “Obviously, that’s going to help all of our businesses out with foot traffic,” he said of Czech Village.
Naughton said staff members have conducted outreach with organizations throughout the United States to keep them posted on the museum’s progress.
“We’ve had four years where we’ve been under the radar,” she said. “We’re trying to get the word out that we’re back in business.”
Video tour of museum: