10 Places You Will Never Visit in Warsaw
small, 10 Places You Will Never Visit in Warsaw, kino_moskwa_fot_chris_niedenthal.jpg, Day one of Martial Law, December 13th 1981, troop carrier in front of Kino Moskwa, photo: Chris Niedenthal / Forum
Urban tourism is flourishing in Poland's capital. City tours go far beyond the old town and the former ghetto. Official and independent tours guide people in the footsteps of characters from books, around urban markets, abandoned buildings, clubs, derelict areas, galleries, and homes once inhabited by those who shaped culture... But what about the buildings and places in Warsaw that no longer exist? Have they been forgotten?
Buildings that no longer exist cannot be visited, but reminders of a phantom city are scattered all around present-day Warsaw. Its forlorn buildings, changed squares and urban structures permeate old maps, illustrations, pictures, souvenirs, stories and architecture books. To the dismay of those seeking to imagine the destroyed buildings in their minds or on their computers, sources differ on construction details. But buildings that lack a definite description aren’t a source of frustration, but of the immense personal joy of exploration.
Warsaw is well-equipped for those wishing to tour ghost buildings. No city was immune to the changes that occurred between the early modern to the industrial period, but Warsaw was additionally affected by its different occupiers. During the 19th century Warsaw was occupied by Russia. It was the intention of the tsarist regime to modernise Warsaw and erase the imprints of its Polish character in order to leave their own mark. Following occupation by the Germans, which also affected its urban structure, Poland regained independence and the new leaders took it upon themselves to get rid of signs left over by the tsarist regime. But two decades weren't enough to restore the look of the city. After World War II, little remained of Warsaw - over 80% of it was destroyed in bombings. Jewish Warsaw was particularly affected, with almost all traces of the Jewish minority (once 30% of the population) obliterated. That wasn't the end of the city's perpetual transfigurations. The communist regime left its own toll. Nowadays, architects and developers play their part in reshaping the landscape.
It takes a leap of the imagination to fathom a city that no longer exists. A hypothetical tour guide could arouse visitors' interest like so...
The harmony of the Baroque axis of the Saska park, a buzzing bazaar at the Gościnny Dwor, the idleness of the Great Synagogue, the serenity of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral...
Warsaw's Saxon Axis
The Elector of Saxony, King Augustus II of the House of Wettin, intended to build a large royal palace worthy of a monarch with absolute power. The plan was loosely based on the baroque design of the Palace of Versailles. The axis was to run from Krakowskie Przedmieście to Plac Żelaznej Bramy through the Saxon Garden. The Saxon Palace and accompanying garden were to be its central points. The Saxon Axis was to be the first such construction in the history of Polish urban planning. Unfortunately, due to various political and financial impediments, it was never fully completed.
Only the Saxon Palace and Garden were built. Where the palace was erected there once stood the baroque Palace of Jan Andrzej Morsztyn. Augustus II bought that parcel of land in 1713, thus construction began and lasted until 1748. After Augustus II died in 1733, his heir Augustus III continued his legacy by expanding the palace. He had two rococo wings built which sealed the palace's courtyard from both sides. Though he couldn't carry out further constructions as intended, the ruler organised exuberant parties and feasts accompanied by extravagant displays of firework. During the period of the Kingdom of Poland, the palace served as a school - the Warsaw Lyceum. It was attended, among others, by Fryderyk Chopin and Oskar Kolberg. After 1831, the palace was inhabited by soldiers of the Tsar and after Poland regained freedom it became the General Headquarters of the Polish Army.
The Germans blew up the Saxon Palace in December 1944. There are advocates of rebuilding the centre of the Saxon Axis - the prestigious palace and its neighbouring Bruhl Palace. Their hope is to restore Warsaw to its past glory. Perhaps it would, but what would become of the buildings surrounding the Axis? The inhabitants of Warsaw would regain a symbol but tourism of the imagination would suffer a blow.
"Żelazna Brama (Iron Gate) got its name from the metal used for the moving part of the gate" – Elżbieta Charazińska writes in the book Saxon Garden – "It had a decorative geometrical grid at the bottom and iron rods topped with triangular blades less than half way up. It was anchored in a stone construction. Its sculptured decorative elements were emblematic of the monarchy. The left cartouche represented the coat of arms of Poland and Lithuania and had a crown on the top. The right one had the coat of arms of the Wettin dynasty and an electoral hat."
Żelazna Brama was at the end of the Western part of the Saxon Axis. The gate no longer exists but its spirit lives on. Za Żelazną Bramą (Behind the Iron Gate) was the name given to a Warsaw housing estate from the 60s and 70s. It was built on the same piece of land where the ghetto once stood. Inspired by Le Corbusier, the estate is composed of 19 concrete apartment blocks with 15 floors each, with between 320 and 400 apartments in each building.
A Guide to Warsaw from 1857 brings back the memory of the now-vanished city market located at the far end of the Saxon Garden, behind Żelazna Brama: "It accommodates 168 stores and so many stalls, from the inside and outside it is surrounded by decorative iron pilasters that form an arcade". The Illustrated Guide to Warsaw from 1892 gives another reading of the bazaar: "Inside and outside there are Jewish stalls with all sorts of trinkets. Filled with shoddy goods, the untidy marketplace is visited by women from all parts of Warsaw". Very little must have changed until 1917 when Trzebiński wrote his Short Guide to Warsaw for Peasants. Józef Galewski highlighted the look of the interior and its function,
Stalls were separated by iron rails. At Christmas, the whole of Warsaw shopped here because it offered the widest and cheapest selection of food products. There were markets in the Old Town, in Mariensztat and on Ordynacka street but for years, Żelazna Brama was the premier market.
Business prospered between 1841 until September 1939 when Gościnny Dwór (Гостиный Двор in Russian and Wielopol after 1918) was destroyed.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
- Where? Saxon Square, present-day Piłsudski Square
Governor-General of Warsaw Iosif Gurko, a hero of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), was responsible for enforcing the Russification policies of Alexander III in Poland. He banned the use of Polish in schools, tightened censorship and persecuted the United Christians (Unici in Polish). In a letter to the Emperor of Russia he asked for the erection of a place of prayer for 42 thousand members of the Russian Orthodox community. His request was answered. Church leaders were pleased:
The erection of a Russia Orthodox Church in the most visible place in Warsaw is a necessity not only for religious reasons but as a symbol of Russian statehood in this country, a symbol of Orthodox Russia of which the Kingdom of Poland is an inseparable part.
The obelisk commemorating Polish officers loyal to the Tsar who were killed during the November Night, which began the November Uprising (1830-31) against the Russian Empire. The monument was transferred to nearby Zielony Square (present-day Dąbrowski square - a strange amalgamation of styles and periods with the neo-Rennaissance Szlenkier Palace, the Za Żelazną Bramą housing estate and the social realist Palace of Culture) and eventually taken down in 1917 by the inhabitants of Warsaw who were eager to make it disappear. From an ideological point of view, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was a loyal successor to the obelisk. This angered some circles of Russians who argued that giving the church political significance was belittling. One of the opponents was Aleksander Błok.
Based on a design by Russian architect Leon Benois, construction lasted 18 years (from 1894 to 1912). And the cathedral's object of pride became its belfry. The 14 bells enclosed in the belfry were made in Moscow. The biggest bell ranked fifth among the biggest bells in the entire Russian Empire. The 70-metre building was one of Warsaw's tallest at the beginning of the 20th century. Among the painters who covered the walls with frescos was Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov.
After the Russians left Warsaw, the cathedral was taken over by the Germans, who used it as a garrison church. Once Poles regained their right to decide their own fates in 1918, the purpose of the cathedral spurred a national debate. What to do with the giant building occupying the central square of the city? The majority of people wished to demolish it - it was a symbol of foreign rule. Others, though they were outnumbered, stood up for the cathedral. The famous writer Stefan Żeromski suggested it could be transformed into a museum of Polish martyrdom. He also defended keeping Vasnetsov's mural paintings.
The absence of the cathedral on Piłsudski Square is noticeable. And the adjacent Hotel Victoria is another ghost story, where, instead of a rectangular block, once upon a time there stood the eclectic Kronenberg Palace.
- Where? Tłomackie Square 7
The Great Synagogue of Warsaw in Tłomackie Street. Opened in 1878, it symbolised the significance and position of the Haskalah supporters, the Jewish enlightenment movement and reformed Judaism. It was designed by Leandro Marconi, son of the famed architect Henyrk, and intended to hold 2,400 worshippers, 600 of whom would be seated in the balcony, photograph from the book Świat utracony. Żydzi polscy. Fotografie z lat 1918-1939 (Lost World: Polish Jews – Photographs from 1918-1939), publ. Boni Libri
The Great Synagogue of Warsaw in Tłomackie Street. Opened in 1878, it symbolised the significance and position of the Haskalah supporters, the Jewish enlightenment movement and reformed Judaism. It was designed by Leandro Marconi, son of t…
Based on an architectural project by Leandro Marconi, Warsaw's largest synagogue was opened on 26 September 1878 for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). It was a meeting place for the Haskalah movement - the Jewish Enlightenment. The building had its advocates and adversaries. It had a classical structure (similar to a Latin cross) and a classical façade decorated with harmonious Renaissance and Empire elements on the Byzantine-Mauritanian structure. The building was 64 metres long and could fit 2,400 people. The rectangular interior was 33 metres long and 29 wide. Its rich ornaments (gold, silver, marble, fabric from the Orient) were gifts from wealthy donors of the Haskalah movement. Despite the Tsarist ban, sermons were read in Polish. To the dismay of the Tsar's opponents, the inscription over the large central door, under the portico, reads: "To the only God for Glory during the Reign of Alexander II Emperor of the Russian Empire and King of Poland". But the synagogue was visited by both Christians and Jews - the Great Synagogue choir, directed by Dawid Ajzensztad, was famous throughout the whole of Warsaw.
In 1942, the Germans turned the Great Synagogue into a furniture warehouse where they gathered stolen art and other possessions. After crushing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the building on Tłomackie street was blown up. Historical records show that Jürgen Stroop, an SS member responsible for the brutal liquidation of the ghetto, personally supervised its destruction. Its absence was felt by the locals, but post-war plans to rebuild it never came to fruition.
Plans to build a skyscraper in its place surfaced in the early 50s but the building wasn't habitable till 1991. Were there serious reasons for the delay? Urban legends report that a rabbi cast a spell on the place before leaving Warsaw. Coincidently, or perhaps not, strange accidents took place on the construction site and construction workers would hear cries, wailing and screams. The metal body of the new building was ready in 1976. Warsovians began to call it the golden skyscraper because it was covered in golden metal sheets. But the building wasn't ready for use until 1991, and the spell was apparently resolved by another rabbi. Today, the building stands and is called the blue skyscraper. The Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute is located at Tłomackie street 3/5.
- Where? Present-day Śląsko-dąbrowski bridge.
The Vistula divides Warsaw into two halves. But it wasn't until 1864 that the two riverbanks were joined by a permanent bridge. The first bridges were made of wood and taken down for winter, when floating ice would come down the river. The new bridge was constructed by Lithuanian engineer Stanisław Kierbedź. He was famous for building the first steel bridge on the Neva River in Saint Petersburg. At the same time, it was the first permanent bridge in the whole Russian Empire. The difficulties posed by the Neva and the long distance between the shores (300 metres), added to the nascent state of bridge construction technology, didn't stop Kierbedź from accomplishing his task.
For the Warsaw bridge, Kierbedź used five stone pillars which were unscathed by German bombing. The truss bridge was 474 metres long and could carry tramways and horse carriages. A special pathway allowed pedestrians to safely cross over to the other side of town. People flocked to the shores just as eagerly as they do today, and sailing was a popular pastime. Guides would alert navigators to the danger on staying above deck underneath the bridge, as spitting from the bridge was another popular pastime among rebellious youths. Another attraction were merchants on galleys selling fruits and vegetables. They would use a long rope with a hook that pierced the food to safely get it over to the person holding the other end of the rope.
The bridge was destroyed by German bombardment. For those interested in underwater archaeology, grids and arches can still be fished out from the bottom of the Vistula. For its cinematic re-enactments in Passendorf's Zamach (1966) and an episode of Czterej pancerni i pies, the part of Kierbedź Bridge was played by a similar but extant bridge in Toruń.
- Where? Corner of Ordynacka and Okólnik streets, present-day Frederic Chopin Music University
The circus was one of Warsaw's biggest attractions. Of the eight-storey construction housing 3 thousand viewers, not a trace now remains. It was once a stage for clowns, acrobats, wrestlers and bearded women. Staniewskich Circus was also famous for its water arena. The bastion of laughs and amazement had appeared on maps of Warsaw since 1882 but disappeared forever in September 1939. Luftwaffe air strikes were particularly aggressive, due to the large size of the building.
Gebethner and Wolff Publishing House
- Where? Corner of Zgoda 12 (former Nowosienna street) and Sienkiewicza 9 streets
Few Warsaw car owners are aware that when they park to come to the centre of the city they are leaving their car on what once was a beautiful town house crowned with a tower reminiscent of alpine castles. The building's architect, Bronisław Brochwicz-Rogoyski, drew inspiration from historicism. Many other buildings designed by him have been swept away by wars. The ground floor of the town house was occupied by a book store offering the latest works released by Gebethner and Wolff Publishing House, while the other floors housed luxurious apartments.
G&W were publishing magnates. Their releases included press (Tygodnik ilustrowany, Kurier Codzienny, Kurier Warszawski), sheet music (7147 scores published up to 1937 and all of Chopin's pieces), comic books (the Adventures of Koziołek Matołek, for example), not to mention books by Reymont, Prus, Orzeszkowa, Konopnicka, Choromański, Iwaszkiewicz, and the masterfully performed translations of Boy-Żeleński.
Never mind going to the Wiech passage parking lot to imagine the building that once stood there - head to antique bookshops and libraries which carry books published by Gebethner and Wolff.
Initially, it was meant to be called Kino Wieczór (Evening Cinema), a name chosen by the readers of Wieczór Warszawy magazine. Instead, to avoid arousing the interest of the censors, it was given the name Moscow Cinema. Why? The cinema was designed by Kazimierz Marczewski and Stefan Putowski and opened on July 22nd 1950. It was the eleventh cinema in Warsaw and although it was communist, it bore no resemblance to typical social realist edifices. Modest and modernistic, the building wasn't encircled by rows of columns or decorated with images of workers. On top of that, two stone lions stood in front of it which reminded detectives of the capitalist allegiances of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios symbol (it's worth mentioning that Samuel Goldwyn was from Poland). Kino Moskwa was big. It could welcome 1200 viewers at the same time and had great acoustics. Apart from its architecture, something else made the theatre stand out: its film programme. It offered reviews of world cinema - a window to the world for Poland behind the Iron Curtain.
The cinema is well-remembered by Warsaw's inhabitants and today's bloggers, who alongside photographs by Chris Niedenthal, guide you to the past,
After walking up the stairs, you landed on a platform guarded by lions. Tickets were sold in a booth outside or in the ticket hall inside. The waiting room and the cinema room had two levels - a ground floor and a balcony. The seat rows in Moskwa were particularly far apart. You didn't have to squeeze through.
Kino Moskwa was destroyed relatively recently, in 1997. In its place now stands Europlex - a modern shopping and office complex. The two lion sculptures by Józef Trenarowski are the same stone felines that defended Moskwa. Apparently not well enough...
- Where? Puławska 2 street, near Unii Lubelskiej square
In the 30s, a 70-metre tall skyscraper was meant to be erected on this square but plans were changed after the outbreak of the war. Instead, in 1962, the first self-service store in Poland was built. Designed by Wacław Zalewski and Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Supersam was an accomplished work of post-war modernism. Despite the steel and concrete used for the construction, the building appeared light, perhaps thanks to its arched roof, bright lighting and big windows.
Supersam was demolished in 2006. For many it was hard to believe that the "great, mathematical and rational sculpture could be taken down", as students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commented at an exhibition dedicated to the building's creator. In Warsaw, architects, art historians, activists and locals took part in several protests against its demolition. But petitions and debates were all in vain, as Supersam never got added to the list of protected buildings.
Warsaw's first self-service grocery was promptly replaced by a shopping mall/office building called Plac Unii and designed by Kuryłowicz & Associates. The new building is a tip of the hat to skyscrapers of the Chicago school and Poland's pre-war plans for the area that never came to fruition.
sightseeing in Warsaw
Sources: Elżbieta Charazińska, ''Ogród Saski'', Warszawa 1979; Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz, ''Warszawa w czasach pierwszej wojny światowej'', Warszawa 1974; Krzysztof Dunin-Wąśowicz, ''Warszawa w latach 1939-1945'', Warszawa 1984; Eleonora Bergman, "Nie masz bóżnicy powszechnej" Synagogi i domy modlitwy w Warszawie od końca XVIII do początku XXI wieku'', Warszawa 2007; Jerzy Jasiuk, ''Dobrem w pamięci zapisani: rzecz o rodzie Kierbedziów'', Warszawa 1995; Karolina Półtorak, ''Most Kierbedzia'' [w:] ''Na Powiślu'' nr. 16, 2010; Bronisław Tumiłowicz, ''Niezapomniani Gebethner i Wolff'' [w:] ''Przegląd'' 8/2008; Marek Nowakowski, ''Okopy Świętej Trójcy. Rozmowy o życiu i ludziach'', Poznań 2014; http://eela1.blox.pl; polona.pl; Archiwum Historii Mówionej; PAP; legendy miejskie
Author: Filip Lech, translator MJ 22/08/2014