This European Old Town Is Fake—but Full of Secrets

Anthony Paletta
Luis Davilla/Getty

It’s a credit to craftsmanship that one could spend some time in Warsaw’s Old Town before noticing a very salient fact about it—most of it is not very old at all. Weathering is mild, features are sometimes a little too regular, masonry is in surprisingly strong shape. Contrast with Praga across the Vistula, a 19th-century neighborhood that is full of crumbling buildings, and you’ll soon realise that something is up. 

The Old Town is very nice because it’s a simulacrum from the early 1950s, when most buildings were rebuilt from skeletal or absent remains. Some were scrupulously reconstructed. Others were dreamed up as pastiches of the era. There is an element of Disneyland to the place, but with the bleakest possible prehistory of the obliteration of much of Warsaw in World War II. The reconstruction of the city’s Old Town, adjacent New Town (new as in 18th-century), and portions of the principal avenue Royal Route (a kingly route between palaces whose reconstructed portions consist of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Ulica Nowy Świat) was an undertaking of grave importance to the postwar Polish state, a country whose capital had been turned into rubble. 

It’s a fascinating and very appealing place, which tells two stories at once. It’s not fully a reconstruction as many buildings are entirely new aside from their facades and basements and some never existed at all, but most of it is about as faithful a reconstruction as documentation and resources could provide. Its aim was not to delude but to restore the cruelly extinguished essence of a vanished place and today offers a vision of the Polish Commonwealth pre-1795 through the frame of the 1950s, a much better fate than just having a pure vintage vision of the 1950s. 

Historic preservation, in most cases, is a luxury predicated on the good fortune of having buildings that endured the ravages of time long enough for people to begin to worry about them. It’s unquestionably a huge amount of work to shore up existing walls but nothing compared to contemplating a historic landmark—or hundreds or thousands of them—without a single full wall standing.

This was the dolorous situation of so many European cities after World War II. Aerial bombardment resulted in tons of ruins whose repairs you probably don’t notice, and actual combat resulted in much more. Few locations were so fully rebuilt in olden style as these historic Warsaw neighborhoods. Few cities were also so completely destroyed. Of a prewar stock of over 25,000 buildings not much more than 1,000 remained intact.

Courtesy Anthony Paletta

Warsaw experienced destruction of almost every possible sort and of every possible motivation in World War II: early aerial bombardment, three rounds of pitched urban combat, and on top of all of this a concerted Nazi effort to level any landmarks of the Polish nation, the last an undertaking reminiscent of the razing of Carthage. Literal “destruction detachments'' were created in 1944 with the task of burning and then dynamiting national monuments, palaces, and historic structures in Warsaw. This vandalism destroyed many consequential buildings, including the Royal Castle and multiple other palaces (one curious fact is that the Nazis didn’t think recent modern architecture was worth pulling down, so one of the city’s best preserved quarters is the charming 1920s and 1930s functionalist villa neighborhood of Saska Kępe).

The city’s comprehensive ruination prompted serious contemplation of simply moving the Polish capital elsewhere, but its reconstruction became a point of national pride.

I don’t need to tell you that the postwar was not a great time for city rebuilding, especially in the Eastern Bloc. Eastern Europe is full of barren modern or socialist neoclassical quarters built on the site of once-bustling historic quarters (see Berlin Alexanderplatz) or whole cities (see Konigsburg/Kaliningrad). Vast destruction coincided, unfortunately, with a peak of terrible ideas about urban planning and a nadir of any civic coffers which resulted in a few impressive modern showcases but many more dreary concrete quarters.

You can find an attitude resembling relief at the war’s destruction in accounts of postwar planners nearly everywhere. The book Warsaw, a City Destroyed and Rebuilt by one of the city’s postwar planners, Adolf Ciborowski, offers a prime example: “Mid-town Warsaw having been almost completely razed in the course of the last war, town-planners had practically a free hand in reshaping it. This was all the more necessary as the previous development of the area had been a particularly unattractive specimen of a 19th-century city.” 

This 19th-century city, of course, looked ravishing compared to most of what replaced it.

Warsaw’s historic reconstruction projects were an odd priority from a state generally eager to construct new socialist cities. Functional older buildings across Poland were being torn down for “rational” construction and decadent capitalist ornament was stripped from buildings not far away in the city. Communists wouldn’t generally dedicate substantial resources to the reconstruction of a past they would surely have thought reactionary, full of prosperous merchants’ homes and churches from the age of Polish kings (historic reconstruction in East Germany took some time longer to gather any steam). Yet the wrenching past rendered the weaving of a stronger link with Poland’s history a priority even to the Polish People’s Republic. 

Courtesy Anthony Paletta

The reconstruction was a mammoth undertaking executed with considerable skill—drawing artisans, architects, and building materials from other wrecked buildings across the Polish state.

The process began with a shortage of actual building plans. People usually remember after their house has burned down that the sole plan was in its attic, if your house is hundreds of years old there likely are no such plans. To compound the problem the most significant collection of construction drawings in the Polish National Library was also mainly lost to fire.

The survival of several archival resources concerning the appearance and design of these buildings was the product of luck and daring in itself. Sketches of monuments from architecture students at the Warsaw Polytechnic survived due to a series of close escapes: hidden in various basements they ended up concealed in a tomb themselves before serving as a partial blueprint for Warsaw’s reconstruction. 

Over 10,000 fragments had been smuggled out of the city’s Royal Palace before its destruction by the Germans; including door panels, columns, marble fireplaces, parquet portions, and parts of murals. Their reassembly was a life-sized jigsaw puzzle. 

Another remarkable source of documentation for Warsaw’s reconstruction was the veduta (highly detailed large-scale painting or a cityscape) of court painter and gadfly-extraordinaire Bernardo Bellotto. Bellotto (who was Canaletto’s nephew and frequently worked under his name, which is another story) left Venice at 21 to paint a series of marvelous works across Europe, particularly in two spells at the Saxon Court of Augustus III in Dresden (King of Poland and Elector of Saxony at the time) and then at the court of the last Polish king, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski. (It’s a particular misfortune that he painted two of the most thoroughly destroyed cities of World War II, but was a boon to the partial rebuilding of both).

Bellotto’s Warsaw veduta (which had previously been filched in part by Napoleon and in whole by Czar Nicholas I) were relocated from the Royal Castle to the National Museum in Warsaw, then moved around by the thieving Germans. They were found by the American Art Projection Service (the Monuments Men) at Callenberg Castle in Coburg in Germany and returned to Poland.

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Bellotto’s paintings were useful in large part because they depicted precisely the era of greatest interest to the reconstruction: the age of independent Poland, not the subsequent 120 plus years of rule or occupation by other states. The Old Town Square had remained mainly reflective of the 17th century until wrecked by war; other portions of the reconstruction area had changed considerably in between. The Royal Route in particular had become lined with newer but still quite old buildings.

Courtesy Anthony Paletta

Some of these buildings were in reasonable-to-salvageable shape, and yet still demolished. These were generally built during Russian rule, which might have been ideologically risky for a Soviet vassals but they were generally representative of bourgeois Tsarist institutions, permissible to efface and replace with historicist structures.

Other things were simply in the way of a pristine historic quarter. The “creation” of Colonial Williamsburg or Society Hill in Philadelphia involved the demolition of hundreds of buildings that were in fine shape but just built later than the desired historical period, or simply in the way of the desired scenography. Warsaw’s city walls survived in part, but houses had been built abutting them; these were all pulled down.

Buildings also change and are altered: this reconstruction aimed to rewind: Baroque and neo-Gothic alterations of St John’s Cathedral subsequent to conquest were omitted. Other changes subsequent to 1795 were generally ignored. 

In the absence of usable masonry and other materials everything from bricks to ornaments were cannibalized from historic rubble in other Polish cities to rebuild Warsaw (this is a tale you will be told in Wrocław).

Some of the reconstructions were quite scrupulous. Others opted to print the legend, in effect.

Philip McCouat points out in Bernardo Bellotto and the Reconstruction of Warsaw that Bellotto’s “Miodowa Street façade of Branicki Palace apparently shows sculptural work derived from his own imagination; these were laboriously copied in the reconstruction nearly two centuries after their invention by the painter.” McCouat also points out that photos reveal that Bellotto left out a line of windows in another historic structure, John’s House on Castle Square. The reconstruction followed Bellotto’s inaccurate depiction. Life imitates art for once.

In other cases evidence was much sparser, and the reconstruction simply made do with exteriors generally evocative of the era. Stories abound of Poles returning to Old Town to find that buildings they recalled simply weren’t there. The task was difficult and evidence sometimes short, and we can all be thankful that gaps in memory weren’t replaced with tower housing.

The purpose of this reconstruction was different, of course, than the original. They weren’t reconstructing prosperous merchants' homes to give them to prosperous merchants: these reconstructions were designed mainly to serve as mass housing, and their interiors were designed along modern lines. Some buildings were removed, courtyards created behind structures. Some home widths were even reduced to improve sightlines. There are many tourist quarters where no one lives, but Warsaw’s Old Town still harbors a fair population.

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One layer of considerable but slightly surreal interest is provided by intricate sgraffito and various relief work. Some of this is redolent of the period and very convincingly executed. Others are in actively ahistorical styles, with some art nouveau patterns and others of a clear 1950s vintage, with at least one very abstract sculptural relief. Depictions of tradesmen and laborers were common, and are often somewhat comic, such as sgraffito of fishermen catching a mermaid (the symbol of Warsaw, see the city flag) in their net. The most jarring is a meta-narrative stucco frieze of bricklayers actually rebuilding the town by Piotr Kann at number 11, Ulica Świętojańskiej.

The quarter’s surviving churches are both well worth a look. St. John’s Archcathedral’s interior was reconstructed in Masovian Gothic style (which, as with many things in Warsaw was not its style for most of its history, but is impressive). St Martin’s Church features a lovely baroque exterior, albeit with a modern interior.

There’s a museum of the history of Warsaw, the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, a Heritage Interpretation Center with material on the rebuilding of Warsaw (and access to some of the cellars which survived destruction) and a pharmaceutical museum, of all things. The fortification wall, rebuilt or cleared of surroundings, is great fun.

One landmark you can’t miss is the Royal Palace, a later project completed in 1984. This was a more comprehensive technical reconstruction (there isn’t housing for bricklayers inside) and is a sumptuous one, offering a grand recreation of the palace of numerous Polish kings. The palace was plundered for art on countless occasions but some of it has been retrieved, including Bellotto’s paintings in their original chamber.

The chambers are a treasure chest of work by (mainly) French and Italian artists from across Europe drawn like Bellotto to the Polish court (or whose work ended up there otherwise). Many works were pillaged from 1795 onwards but a reasonable portion of the original collection was reconstituted, and others works from Rembrandt to Gainsborough have been acquired and donated since.

The Warsaw New Town, reflecting a later age of the city’s history, is a quieter and more spacious expanse than the Old Town, but well worth a ramble. 

The Royal Route to the south is a bit more variable in quality but is still an excellent walk, containing several very fine reconstructions and some wonderful buildings that survived, most notably St Anne’s, the Visitationist, and Carmelite Churches are welcome survivors. Reconstruction isn’t a finished process in Warsaw: some projects and tweaks are recent, underway, or still on the drawing board.

The Warsaw Old Town was a unique addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List in the 1980, for a body that generally looked askance on reconstructions, especially on those that took such occasional liberties as the Warsaw one. The listing acknowledged the process of the rebuilding itself, finding the project representative of “the inner strength and determination of the nation, which brought about the reconstruction of the heritage on a unique scale in the history of the world.”

It’s not how one would likely go about rebuilding a destroyed city today, but that lends it even more interest. It’s a time capsule of two moments, an unlikely Communist resurrection of a royal past, inserting workers’ housing and imagery into a bourgeois center. This was all produced by collaboration between architects who often went on to build in entirely modern style and older artisans whose talents were often already in short supply. History is full of violent gaps in urban fabric, so we can be very grateful for this repair. 

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