Foreigners visiting Poland must notice the distinctive style of a contemporary single-family housing – houses which entrance is decorated with columns, often topped by a triangular pediment, or something in between.
Photo: akro.pl, itpol.home (click to enlarge)
This style, referring to the architecture of the old Polish manor houses from late 18th – 19th centuries (called in Polish: “dwór” or “dworek”) – has become very popular since the 1990s. Unfortunately, only a few projects can be considered as successful, the vast majority are “a bad dream of a good architect”.
High popularity of the “old mansion style” expresses the post-communist society longing to the era of the nobles (Polish: szlachta) and the manor houses inhabited by them. It is also a snobbish approach, because the noble mansion defined the social status of the owners. Besides, such residence was an important centre of the care of the Polish culture, customs and traditions. It also provided a soldier when needed to defend the country or for insurgents in the 19th century. There originated the Polish ideal of femininity: gentle, innocent girl with the flaxen braids, “maiden from noble mansions”.
The charms of the Polish manor house is described in the “Pan Tadeusz” epic by Adam Mickiewicz, whose aim was to reviving hearts of a nation not having their state since the last partition in 1795.
In the pictures: photos from the movie adaptation of “Pan Tadeusz”, directed by Andrzej Wajda. On the left: the title character as Polish uhlan on the way to Moscow with Napoleon and his fiancée Sophie, a classic maiden of the manor. On the right: the nobility dancing polonaise.
Interestingly, there is a Dutch clue in the history of the Polish manor house. These characteristic, neoclassical columns and pediments were introduced in Poland on a large scale at the end of the 17th century by the Dutch architect Tielman van Gameren, designer of many aristocratic palaces (read: Architect from Utrecht). Those classic elements were etched permanently in the architecture of manor houses at the late 18th century.
Choryń – mansion built in the late 18th century. Outbuildings were added in the 19th century / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2012
The Polish mansion
But what exactly is the Polish manor-house? Up to the 17th century it was a defensive headquarter of the knights, including both a residential house and outbuildings.
Renaissance fortified manor (castle) in Szymbark, built approx. 1540. / photo: Wikipedia Commons
Then this term had been narrowed down to a residential building of the owners, but a necessary condition for the existence of the manor was the possession of the land and farming.
Photo from the movie “Nights and Days” / Kinoplay
The manor houses are usually smaller than a castle or palace and bigger than a peasants hut. It was built usually from the larch wood on a stone foundation…
Radziejowice – the wooden seat of the farm manager, built at the turn of the 18th and 19th century / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2009
with the typical Polish “broken” hip roof.
Koszuty – a manor-house from about 1760 r. / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2011
A typical baroque mansion was erected on a square plan, with defense towers at the corner sides. This element survived in the mansion architecture until the end of the 19th century, with living rooms inside the towers. A beautiful example of this type of architecture is the mansion in Koszuty.
Koszuty / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski
In the 17th century noble houses began to lose its defensive character, and moats and palisades had been replaced by gardens, lawns and parks. At the end of the 18th century the architecture of the mansions has changed, establishing a typical pattern of the Polish manor house, used practically up to the First World War.
The most characteristic features of the new residence:
- the house is built on a rectangular plan, formed in the direction of 11 hour to let the sun shine on all four walls.
- has one floor and a hipped gable roof consisting of two parts of the same or very similar angle, covered with shingles or tiles.
Kuklówka Radziejowicka – a faithful copy of the far eastern Poland mansion from the 19th century / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2009
- it is usually made of a larch wood (balls are placed on the framework), but also built of brick; walls painted on white colour.
- the entrance is located on the axis of the building, leading to the hall porch with a columned portico and pediment…
Srebrna Góra – a manor-house from about 1792 r. / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2012
Stara Przysieka – a mansion from about second half of the 18th century / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2012
- the road to the mansion is alley and there should be a circular lawn in front of the building.
Grzybno, mansion built in the years 1899-1905 for the family Günter, now the headquarters of an agricultural school / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2011
- the mansion is surrounded by park.
A patriotic house
During partition (1795 – 1918), when Poland was erased from the political map, and Polishness was persecuted, the use of classical architectural elements of the Polish manor became a form of patriotic demonstration. The manor style was used not only in the new premises of the landowners, but also in urban houses, villas, public buildings, etc. The guide in this style, with advices on how to build a “national” mansion, became a brochure of Prince Sigismund Czartoryski “On national style in rural architecture”, released in 1896. (Since World War I this style was officially referred to as “national” or “dworkowy”.)
Poznań – Piotrowo – a mansion from 1907, designed in national style by Roger Sławski / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2011
Those guidelines were practically used until 1939. Then – due to the new political realities – there was a fifty-year break. In the People’s Republic of Poland (1944 – 1989) all references to the era of landowners were unwelcome by the new authorities. They had not recognized in them an important element of the Polish national heritage. Lovely mansion type architecture has been replaced – in in the mass residential construction – by socialist cubes. Easy to be built, simply and… ugly.
Classical cube from 70. and 80. of the 20th century. In the background – new kind of house, with a sloping roof. / photo: Renata Głuszek
In socialist Poland the fate of the Polish manor house was therefore no less dramatic than the fate of its noble owners, who – as a result of the political reform – lost their ancestral residences, forever or for years. Decree on agricultural reform of September 6th, 1944 removed from their estates almost all owners which survived the war (the new law précised that expropriation should be applied only to estates having over 50 ha but it was not respected – so illegal). Only 30 (!) mansions in the present Poland borders are kept by descendants of their pre-war owners. It was possible as those houses didn’t belong to the land estate anymore. (This and the following figures are taken from the “Polish mansions” by Maciej Rydel*, published in 2014).
Piekary – a manor-house from the 18th century, which remained in hands of the pre-war owner after 1944. Sold to the private purchaser in 1968 r. / Photo Roman Wolniszewski, 2009
Parts of the divided land were given out to the peasants, while deserted mansions became used by various institutions: state-owned farms (PGR), schools, kindergartens, offices. Also people were resettled there, eg. employees of the state farms. Lack of care for those monuments caused its profound devastation. Many were just demolished, many survived up today as ruins. According to Maciej Rydel, there was 16 000 mansions in pre-war Poland, and in present country only 2800 exists – 2,000 of them in ruins. Only 150 mansions preserved its architectural and historical values – less than 1% of the number from 1939 and 5.3% of all registered mansions.
After 1990 appeared (still imperfect) ability to recover family seat, but less than 45 (!) owners (data from 2014) took this opportunity. 180 manor houses were bought by individuals who – in many cases – have restored them beautifully. The rest are still used by different institutions (schools, kindergartens, orphanages, health centers, etc.), some have been converted into guesthouses, hotels, conference and training centers or museums, including private. A good example of this new existence of the historical mansion was Private Museum in Petrykozy, established by the popular actor Wojciech Siemion (who died tragically in 2010 in a car accident). Built in second half of the 19th century and purchased by the actor in 1969, “dworek” required a major overhaul (made by Mrs. and Mr. Siemion by their own hands). After restoration the house has turned into a charming art gallery with works by, among others, Zdzislaw Beksiński, Jerzy Duda-Gracz, Leon Tarasiewicz and Edward Dwurnik.
Petrykozy, August 2009 r. / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski.
Unfortunately at March 4, 2013 the manor house burned down, and to this day has not been rebuilt.
Another museum in the former mansion – Koszuty, Museum of the Średzki Land / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski.
There are still about 1950 historical objects to be restored. But reconstruction creates a serious problem – preservation of the real character and spirit of the monument. Meanwhile, many new owners do not care of it or cannot care due to lack of the proper knowledge and capabilities. So the ancient centers of cultural life and old Polish traditions have turned into ordinary residential buildings or deteriorate.
Adamowizna – a wooden mansion from the half of 19th century / Photo: Roman Wolniszewski, 2009.
Contestation on the mansion
Rebirth of the fashion of the Polish manor house has its supporters and opponents. The former include descendants of the old nobility, who have their own organizations, for example Polish Landowning Society or Association of the Polish Nobility. According to Łukasz Górka, the author of the article “New Identity of the Polish manor house”, a contemporary Polish court (not necessarily inhabited by the nobility) should be more than just a stylish house and should again become a center of the cultivation of traditional Polish family and patriotic values.
In the criticism of Polish “dworek” Górka sees questioning the need for patriotism, inspired by European Union (!). The allegation is obviously ridiculous, because the old European Union just knows how to care of the cultural landscape – as it can be seen at the countryside in France or England. Besides, popularity of mansion style in Poland is a proof that Poles are able to resist the “anti-Polish machinations” of the Union. The problem is that the massive imitation of the ancient architecture is not successful, sometimes even grotesque.
On the other side, modern single-family housing in Poland is generally not interesting, without some native distinguishing feature. So if Poles are bored of immortal white columns and are missing a good, modern design, maybe it’s time for a new Tielman van Gameren?
Published: November 24, 2016
The author is very thankful to Mr Roman Wolniszewski, whose passion of exploring old residences and pictures inspired me for writing this story.
* Vice President of the Board of the Polish Landowners Association, the largest Polish documentary mansions and the history of the landed gentry
In this article I used, among others, Information from: