Past and Present of the city
Once touted as the Paris of the East, the only thing vaguely Parisian about modern day Warsaw are the numerous dog deposits that find themselves stuck to your shoe. If Warsaw was a kid it would have attended the school of hard knocks; few metropolises can boast the same run of misfortune this city has been dealt. Through the ages Warsaw has been battered, bullied, burned and bombed, most famously by the Nazis who, having crushed the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, numbered the surviving buildings in order of cultural importance before blowing them to pieces. By the time Russian tanks chose to roll across the River Wisła 85% of Warsaw was in total ruin. While token swathes of the city were rebuilt in their former fashion, much of the city was left at the mercy of commie architects with little sympathy for aesthetics; the droll concrete skyscrapers that line the horizon are the sorry evidence of a city rebuilt from dust.
It’s perhaps surprising, however, that possibly the grandest structure that ever stood in Warsaw was actually torn down by the locals, no less than 14 years after it was completed. Commissioned by the Governor General of Poland, Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko, work commenced on St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in 1893 and continued until 1914. Earmarked to serve as place of worship for Warsaw’s ruling Russian community the building was the work of the architect Leontij Benois, a professor in The Tsarist Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg. The site, on what is today pl. Piłsudskiego was not chosen by accident; in 1840 the same patch of land was occupied by an obelisk commemorating Polish generals who had collaborated with the Russians during the 1830 November Uprising.
It was financed by huge taxes levied by the insufferable Gourko, as well as a collection of funds ordered by Tsar Alexaner III, though Russia’s looming economic crisis meant that construction took 18 years. The results though were staggering. Consisting of five gold plated domes, and a 70 metre bell tower (then the tallest building in Warsaw), the cathedral proved even more dazzling on the inside. Raising comparisons to St Mark’s in Venice, copper and oak main doors led to an interior dripping with oil paintings and icons. Sixteen mosaic panels were designed by Viktor asnetsov, and the building was heavily adorned with precious stones. The cathedral operated as a Russian shrine until 1915 when Warsaw was captured by German forces. The next three years saw it function as a German military church, though the moment Poland gained independence plans were floated to demolish this symbol of Russian hegemony.
The debate on what to do with it reigned for years, with arguments including that the building had no artistic value, that the square needed to be freed up for military parades and that the foundations were already sinking. Finally in 1922 the tower was taken down, and between 1924-1926 some 15,000 detonations were set off to rid Warsaw of the cathedral. Not one to miss a mark, the Warsaw magistrate sold public bonds so as to allow every Pole the chance to take part in the iconoclasm. The resulting rubble was used to strengthen the banks of the Wisła and the rescued Finnish granite put to effect in many Warsaw churches. Of the surviving decorations a few of the mosaics can now be viewed at the St Mary Magdalene Church in Praga (one of only two Warsaw orthodox churches to survive the 20s), pulpit and altar pieces in the St Peter and Paul Church in Pyry and icons in the Pokrovy Orthodox Church in Baranowicze, Belarus.
In direct proximity to the Cathedral stood another glorious piece of lost Warsaw: the Saski Palace. Originally the residence of the Morsztyn family the building was purchased by King Augustus II and substantially enlarged and used by both him and his successor, Augustus III. Off-topic, but nevertheless worth airing, amateur historians will delight in learning that Augustus II sired 12 children by different women, while his successor managed to match the number, only this time staying loyal to his wife in the process.
Back on track, when Augustus III passed away (shagged out most likely) the building fell into disuse before being rented out for accommodation. Between 1806-1816 the Prussians established Warsaw Lyceum on the premises, and conflicting evidence suggests that Chopin either lived there for a time, or that his father taught French in one of the outbuildings. Extensively remodelled in 1842 the Palace finally assumed its best known shape in 1925 when the Tomb of the Unknown soldier was added to the series of colonnades used to link the two wings together. Serving as the seat of the Polish General Staff after I World War it was here that the German Enigma Code was first cracked by local science boffins. II World War signaled the end of the Palace and it was flattened by retreating Nazi troops, with only the Tomb of the Unknown soldier surviving the blasts.
But the story continues. In a rare act of foresight the city of Warsaw has decided to cover the 201 million złoty cost of rebuilding Saski Palace. Budimex Dromex have been awarded the tender to undertake the work and the façade, thanks to blueprints made available by the Central Military Archive, will look just like it did in 1939. It’s not known what will occupy the space, with ideas ranging from a Museum of Polish History to an institute dedicated to the thoughts of Pope John Paul II. Completion is set for 2010, though so far building work has not entirely gone to plan. Although sappers failed to find any undetonated devices, builders have since come across over 10,000 rare archaeological finds including baroque sculptures, secret tunnels, ancient wells, German helmets and wine glasses bearing August III’s monogram. The one problem being that no provision was made for discoveries of this scale, meaning that many of the treasures recovered have since corroded after being incorrectly stored.
One building that has no chance of being rebuilt is the Great Synagogue that was once found on ulica Tłomackie. Leander Marconi (a relative of the man who designed the Tsarist Pawiak Prison) was chosen to be the chief architect and the building was completed in 1878 after three years of work. Holding over 3,000 worshippers it was the largest of its kind in Warsaw, and one of the biggest synagogues in the world. The unleashing of the Holocaust marked its end, and it was dynamited by Nazi soldiers on May 16, 1943 to celebrate the crushing of the Ghetto Uprising. Popular legend suggests that a Rabbi placed a curse so that no other building would rise in its place and, wouldn’t you know it, the blue glass tower that now stands on the spot took some thirty years to complete – and then only after the curse had apparently been revoked. All that remain of the synagogue are a small stone column, though the synagogues library has since been utilized to hold the Jewish Historical Institute (3/5 Tłomackie St).
Another such building to disappear from the map of Warsaw was the Bruhl’s Palace, situated on pl. Piłsudskiego on the corners of Wierzbowa and Fredry. Built between 1639 and 1642 for Jerzy Ossoliński the building was renovated at the tail end of that century by Tylman van Gameren, whose other works number Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle and the Church of St Casimir. Reputed to be the most beautiful rococo residence in Warsaw it came under the sterwardship of Heinrich von Bruhl in 1750. Bruhl was a minister in the government of master procreator Augustus III, and his greed and disastrous financial plans largely contributed to Poland’s downfall. While Poland folded into chaos his palace survived and through the years it was treated to further renovations by Dominic Merlini (also credited with the design of the Hotel Bristol) and would in turn serve as the Russian Embassy, the private quarters of Grand Duke Constantine and the Central Telegraph Office. Constantine was a particularly nasty piece of work and it was during his stint here that the subterranean cellars were turned into dungeons. Unfortunates accused of espionage would be interrogated in the basements, with one story asserting that two Jews were kept locked up in total darkness for a period of several years.
The Palace suffered an ignoble end after it was torched by Germans in 1944. Today it is the site of a monument honouring Stefan Starzyński, Warsaw’s mayor at the time of the invasion. Starzyński, known for his rallying radio broadcasts, conducted his heroic defence of Warsaw from the nearby (and meticulously rebuilt) Jabłonowski Palace on 14/16 Senatorska St.
We’ve not even skimmed the surface in our look at lost Warsaw. Those wishing to find out more about the city that once was have a couple of supreme websites to visit. Click to www.stalus.iq.pl to find a vast bank of pre-war photographs and postcards. The site is in Polish only, though hitting Warszawskie Ulice is enough to take you to a list of streets that can be viewed. Once the photo of your choice opens up press ‘Dziś’ to see the form the street takes nowadays. If those monkeyproof instructions are beyond you then go to www.starawarszawa.pl which features an English language option. Best of the lot mind is www.warszawa1939.pl/fotoplan/przeglad.htm, a site which allows you to hover your mouse over a map of pre-war Warsaw before clicking on the particular building you wish to see.
More information: http://www.inyourpocket.com/poland/city/warsaw.html