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Warsaw Old Town – reconstruction masterpiece


If you want to see the world`s most important historical sites, you should go to Poland, a country on top of the UNESCO World Heritage List

Warsaw Old Town – reconstruction masterpiece

Poland, being a country of great cultural and natural beauty, which takes care of its preservation, is not only one of the first State Parties of the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, but also one of the most represented on the World Heritage List. Till July 2008, thirteen Polish properties were included to this prestigious “Inventory” of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It gives to “our native heritage” the 8th place in Europe (the 8th of 46 European countries) and the 17th in the world (the 17th on United Nations 197 independent states list).

In this way, Medieval Town of Toruń, Old City of Zamość as well as Belovezhskaya Pushcha/Białowieża Forest, Churches of Peace in Jawor and Świdnica, or Wieliczka Salt Mine, stand by these extraordinary sites such as Banks of the Seine in Paris, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India or the Pyramids of Egypt. The Historic Centre of Warsaw, called the Old Town (Starówka) was inscribed in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in September 2, 1980. It happened 41 years and 1 day after the Nazi invasion of Poland.


Warsaw Old Town as the result of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the whole Polish nation


During World War II Poland suffered from a brutal nazi occupation and Warsaw was deliberately annihilated in 1944 as a repression of the Polish resistance. The capital city was literally reduced to ruins with the intention of eliminating the centuries-old tradition of Polish statehood. The rebuilding of the historic city, 85% of which was completely destroyed, was in fact the result of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the whole Polish nation. It was another example of nation`s solidarity which has always been the Poles` virtue. The reconstruction of the Old Town in its historic urban and architectural form was the manifestation of the care and attention taken to assure the survival of one of the most important testimonials of Polish culture. The city was rebuilt as a symbol of elective authority and tolerance, where the first democratic European constitution, the Constitution of May 3, 1791, was adopted. The reconstruction included the holistic recreation of the urban plan, together with the Old Town Market, townhouses, the circuit of the city walls, the Royal Castle, and important religious buildings. The reconstruction was so precise that one can hardly tell if the the building survived the war or if it was rebuilt. That`s why the Warsaw Old Town was honored by the UNESCO.

The reconstruction of Warsaw’s historic centre was a major contribution to the changes in the doctrines related to urbanisation and conservation of cities in most of the European countries after the destructions of World War II. Simultaneously, this example illustrates the effectiveness of conservation activities in the second half of the 20th century, which permitted the integral reconstruction of the complex urban ensemble.

The reconstruction project utilised any extant, undamaged structures built between the 14th and 18th centuries, together with the late-medieval network of streets, squares, and the main market square, as well as the circuit of city walls. Two guiding principles were followed: firstly, to use reliable archival documents where available, and secondly, to aim at recreating the historic city’s late 18th-century appearance. The latter was dictated by the availability of detailed iconographic and documentary historical records from that period. It was what luckilly survived the war and remained to next generations. Additionally, conservation inventories compiled before 1939 and after 1944 were used, along with the scientific knowledge and expertise of art historians, architects, and conservators. The Archive of the Warsaw Reconstruction Office, housing documentation of both the post-war damage and the reconstruction projects, was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2011.


Warsaw – the invincible city

The rebuilding of the Old Town continued until the mid-1960s. The entire process was completed with the reconstruction of the Royal Castle opened to visitors in August 30, 1984. The reconstruction of individual buildings and their surroundings, in the adopted format of residential housing, featuring public functions dedicated to culture and science, as well as services, carried with its numerous challenges posed by the need to adapt to the social norms and demands of the time. In order to highlight the defensive walls and the city panorama as viewed from the Vistula, the reconstruction of some buildings was deliberately foregone. The urban layout was retained, along with the division of the street frontages into historic building plots; however, the properties within these quarters were not rebuilt, thus creating communal open areas for residents. The interior layout of buildings and residential flats was revised to meet the standards in force at the time. However, both historical room plans and interior designs were recreated in many of the buildings intended for public use. A highly regarded feature was the decoration of exterior elevations carried out by a team of renowned artists, who drew in part on designs from the interwar period. Polychrome decoration was executed using traditional techniques, including sgraffito. In spite of the adaptations and the changes introduced, the site, along with the city panorama as seen from the Vistula (which has become a symbol of Warsaw), presents a cohesive picture of the oldest part of the city.

Combining extant features with those parts of the Old Town reconstructed as a result of the conservation programme led to the creation of an urban space unique in terms of its material dimension (the form of the oldest part of the city), its functional dimension (as a residential quarter and venue for important historical, social, and spiritual events), and its symbolic dimension (an invincible city).

The cohesive rebuilding process came to an end with the reconstruction of the Royal Castle. Since then, the Historic Centre of Warsaw has fully retained its authenticity as a finished concept of post-war reconstruction. This World Heritage property includes two categories of structure. The first comprises extant structures predating the damage of World War II. This applies to most basements, some ground floor storeys and certain sections of wall up to the level of the first floor. The second category encompasses reconstructed features – this group includes buildings recreated in accordance with pre-war records (some of the Old Town’s townhouses, the Sigismund’s Column, churches, and the Royal Castle), and those rebuilt based on historical and conservation studies pertaining to the architecture of the 14th to 18th centuries (e.g. the façade of the cathedral, and the Old Town walls with the Barbican). The state of preservation of individual types of structure and entire buildings is satisfactory. Their maintenance requires the implementation of systematic conservation measures.


The Warsaw Old Town, the gateway leading into memory lane


The Warsaw Old Town is a place where our nation`s heart was given. When I was living abroad in late 80`s and early 90`s I was encouraged to remain in exile and discouraged to go back to homeland which was still a member of so-called the Eastern European Block. At those days we were unsure whether the Polish Round Table Talks would change our geopolitical situation and we were afraid of experiencing martial law once again. Nothing was obvious then but whenever I was thinking about staying in exile the same image came to my mind, The Warsaw Old Town, my love and my favourite place on Earth. I knew if I had chosen migration my way to my homeland, home town and Old Town might have been closed for long time. The Historic Centre of Warsaw does not have only our big affection and is the gateway leading into memory lane but it also has fascinating history and if you want to learn it you will need a journey to the past, old days much earlier than WWII. Shall we go back to the 13th century when The Old Town was established?

Initially surrounded by an earthwork rampart, prior to 1339 it was fortified with brick city walls. The town originally grew up around the castle of the Dukes of Mazovia that later became the Royal Castle. The Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) was laid out sometime in the late 13th or early 14th century, along the main road linking the castle with the New Town to the north.

The Old Town Market Place (Rynek Starego Miasta), which dates back to the end of the 13th century, is the true heart of the Old Town, and until the end of the 18th century it was the heart of the whole Warsaw. Here the representatives of guilds and merchants met in the Town Hall (built before 1429, pulled down in 1817), and fairs and the occasional execution were held. The houses around it represented the Gothic style until the great fire of 1607, after which they were rebuilt in late-Renaissance style. Nowadays you can find here restaurants and cafes which offer mainly Polish specialities. However, one also sees barrel organ players and portrait painters. Since 1855 there has been a bronze sculpture (The Warsaw Mermaid) at exactly the same place. It’s the symbol of Warsaw. The four house sides of the marketplace also are still named after one of their famous inhabitants: Zakrzewski (mayor), Barss (solicitor), where you can find the Mickiewicz Literature Museum in house number 20, Kollataj (priest) and Dekert (mayor), where you now find the Historical Museum entrance in house number 42.

The Barbican was built in 1548. It is directly situated where the Old Town merges into the New Town. It served as an access gate to the Old Town and it is integrated directly into the Warsaw City Wall that surrounds the Old Town. The most part of the Warsaw Old Town Wall has survived since the time it was built in the 14th century. It took the workers about 200 years till it was fully completed.


The Warsaw Old Town, historical site and gathering place

Let`s meet there

Before you get to the heart of The Warsaw Old Town, i.e. The Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) you will find Castle Square (plac Zamkowy) which is both meaningful historical site, place of interest and nowadays gathering place. It`s also a visitor’s first view of the reconstructed Old Town, when approaching from more modern center of Warsaw. Enclosed between the Old Town and the Royal Castle, Castle Square is steeped in history. Here was the gateway leading into the city called the Kraków (Cracow) Gate (Brama Krakowska). It was developed in the 14th century and continued to be a defensive area for the kings. The square was in its glory in the 17th century when Warsaw became the country’s capital and it was here in 1644 that King Władysław IV erected the column to glorify his father Sigismund (Zygmunt) III Vasa, who is best known for moving the capital of Poland from Cracow (Kraków) to Warsaw (Warszawa). This is a bronze statue which was errected in 1644 and is 22 meters high. It towers above the beautiful Old Town houses. Steps at the bottom of the column are always occupied by people who have arranged meeting there. It`s where most of them begin their walk through The Warsaw Old Town. You can also find some nice restaurants here if you are hungry and also some city tours have their starting point at the Castle Square.


The Royal Castle`s historical value

As written above the Royal Castle was the place where the Constitution of May 3, 1791 was adopted. It remained in effect for little over a year before being overthrown by Russian armies allied with conservative Polish nobility in the Polish–Russian War of 1792, also known as the War in Defense of the Constitution. With the wars between Turkey and Russia and Sweden and Russia having ended, Empress Catherine was furious over the adoption of the document, which she believed threatened Russian influence in Poland. Russia had viewed Poland as a de facto protectorate. “The worst possible news have arrived from Warsaw: the Polish king has become almost sovereign” was the reaction of one of Russia’s chief foreign policy authors, Alexander Bezborodko, when he learned of the new constitution. The contacts of Polish reformers with the Revolutionary French National Assembly were seen by Poland’s neighbours as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy and a threat to the absolute monarchies. The Prussian statesman Ewald von Hertzberg expressed the fears of European conservatives: “The Poles have given the coup de grâce to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution”, elaborating that a strong Commonwealth would likely demand the return of the lands Prussia acquired in the First Partition.

Magnates who had opposed the constitution draft from the start, Franciszek Ksawery Branicki, Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, Seweryn Rzewuski, and Szymon and Józef Kossakowski, asked Tsarina Catherine to intervene and restore their privileges—the Cardinal Laws abolished under the new statute. To that end these magnates formed the Targowica Confederation. The Confederation’s proclamation, prepared in St. Petersburg in January 1792, criticized the constitution for contributing to “contagion of democratic ideas” following “the fatal examples set in Paris”. It asserted that “The parliament … has broken all fundamental laws, swept away all liberties of the gentry and on the third of May 1791 turned into a revolution and a conspiracy.” The Confederates declared an intention to overcome this revolution. We “can do nothing but turn trustingly to Tsarina Catherine, a distinguished and fair empress, our neighboring friend and ally”, who “respects the nation’s need for well-being and always offers it a helping hand”, they wrote.

Russian armies entered Poland and Lithuania, starting the Polish–Russian War of 1792. The Sejm voted to increase the army of the Commonwealth to 100,000 men, but owing to insufficient time and funds this number was never achieved and soon abandoned even as a goal. The Polish King and the reformers could field only a 37,000-man army, many of them untested recruits. This army, under the command of Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, defeated or fought to a draw the Russians on several occasions, but in the end, a defeat loomed inevitable. Despite Polish requests, Prussia refused to honor its alliance obligations. Stanisław August’s attempts at negotiations with Russia proved futile. As the front lines kept shifting to the west and in July 1792 Warsaw was threatened with siege by the Russians, the King came to believe that victory was impossible against the numerically superior enemy, and that surrender was the only alternative to total defeat. Having received assurances from the Russian ambassador Yakov Bulgakov that no territorial changes will occur, the Guardians of the Laws cabinet voted 8:4 to surrender. On July 24, 1792, King Stanisław August Poniatowski joined the Targowica Confederation, as the Empress had demanded. The Polish Army disintegrated.

Many reform leaders, believing their cause was for now lost, went into self-imposed exile. Some hoped that Stanisław August would be able to negotiate an acceptable compromise with the Russians, as he had done in the past. But the King had not saved the Commonwealth and neither had the Targowica Confederates, who governed the country for a short while. To their surprise, the Grodno Sejm, bribed or intimidated by the Russian troops, enacted the Second Partition of Poland. On November 23, 1793, it concluded its deliberations under duress, annulling the constitution and acceding to the Second Partition. Russia took 250,000 square kilometres (97,000 sq mi), while Prussia took 58,000 square kilometres (22,000 sq mi). The Commonwealth now comprised no more than 215,000 square kilometres (83,000 sq mi). What was left of the Commonwealth was merely a small buffer state with a puppet king, and Russian garrisons keeping an eye on the reduced Polish army.

For a year and a half, Polish patriots waited while planning an insurrection. On March 24, 1794 in Kraków (Cracow), Tadeusz Kościuszko declared what has come to be known as the Kościuszko Uprising. On May 7, he issued the Proclamation of Połaniec (Uniwersał Połaniecki), granting freedom to the peasants and ownership of land to all who fought in the insurrection. Revolutionary tribunals administered summary justice to those deemed traitors to the Commonwealth. After initial victories at the Battle of Racławice (April 4), the capture of Warsaw (April 18) and the Wilno (April 22) — the Uprising was crushed when the forces of Russia, Austria and Prussia joined in a military intervention. Historians consider the Uprising’s defeat to have been a foregone conclusion in face of the superiority in numbers and resources of the three invading powers. The defeat of Kościuszko’s forces led in 1795 to the third and final partition of the Commonwealth.


Jan Kiliński, a cobbler who commanded the Kościuszko Uprising


One of the commanders of the Kościuszko Uprising was Jan Kiliński (1760 in Trzemeszno – 28 January 1819 in Warsaw), a cobbler by trade, a member of provisional government. In 1780 he settled in Warsaw, where he became a shoemaking master in 1788. One of the most prominent burghers of the time, he was elected member of the city council three times in a row between 1791 and 1793. During the Warsaw Uprising of 1794, Kiliński formed a unit of National Militia and led his forces, along with the forces of the regular army, against the Russian occupation forces. On April 19 of that year, following the Russian withdrawal, he signed the Access of the city of Warsaw to the Kościuszko’s Uprising and entered the Provisional Temporary Council, a temporary ruling body of the city.

The council was soon disbanded and passed its powers to Tadeusz Kościuszko, and Kiliński focused on strengthening his militias. His forces grew to over 20,000 men at arms and on June 28, 1794 were dispatched to the front to link up with the regular Polish Army. On July 2 of the same year Kościuszko promoted Kiliński to the rank of Colonel. After the failure of the uprising, Kiliński was arrested by the Prussian authorities and handed over to the Russians, who then imprisoned him in the Peter and Paul Fortress, in St. Petersburg. Upon his release in 1796, he lived in Vilna for a short time. However, he was yet again arrested for conspiracy against the tsarist authorities and forcibly resettled to Russia. Upon his return he settled in Warsaw, where he died January 28, 1819. Kiliński was buried in a crypt at the Powązki Cemetery Church. His memoirs were posthumously published in 1830 and 1899 (1st and 2nd volume, respectively).

Said to embody the Polish virtues of bravery and patriotism, his statue was erected in 1936 and originally located on pl. Krasińskich. In reprisal for an attack on the Copernicus Monument, Nazi troops hid Kiliński inside the vaults of the National Museum. Within days, boy scouts had daubed the museum with the graffiti ‘People of Warsaw! I am here, Jan Kiliński.’ After the war the cobbler was returned to his rightful place, before being finally relocated to ul. Podwale in 1959.

Approaching the end of this story I shall give to you one more thing. A Polish legend says that there is one townhouse in the Old Market Place where a cat was immured alive. This cat was unlucky since whenever it came to the city its appearance always caused flash flood. The government decided to punish poor animal and immured it alive in the corner of the house situated on the crossroad of The Old Town Market (Rynek Starego Miasta) and ul. Wąski Dunaj. And believe it or not but this townhouse corner was only one remain while the rest of The Old Town was badly damaged by the German Luftwaffe.

And we are back again in 2016. I am in a Castle Square now writing this text. I see a lot of people, languages are mixed like in the mythical Tower of Babel. I can hear noises of the city but walking the streets of the Old and New Towns will allow me to rest from the the bustle of central city life. And while strolling I will be able to see the world heritage site. And you can do the same when you come to my lovely town. I am leaving you here and going towards The Old Market Place. Good bye and to see you here.


By Agata Szostkowska

Photos: Michał Stanisławski:

On the first photo Agata Szostkowska and Michał Stanisławski in the Old Town discussing the new article.

Autorka artykulu i autor zdjec

On the second photo: Michał Stanisławski in the Old Town during the photo session.

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Photos from the author’s archives: Old Town

Photos taken in the 50s

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Photo taken in 1962

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Photo taken in 1964

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