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Welcoming Home

COMMENTARY by Tom Condon
October 30, 2005

A food writer once described Hartford's Polish National Home as "built to withstand the onslaught of Russian tanks." Given Poland's history, perhaps this was at the back of the architect's mind.

The building is solid, to be sure, but also quite remarkable, a stately Art Deco cube with a stylish, comfortable and inviting interior. It was designed by Hartford architect Henry F. Ludorf, a Polish-American who became known for Art Deco buildings in other East Coast cities.

What's important for our purposes today is that Ludorf created this building in 1929-30. The Polish National Home, cultural center of the city's Polish community and often a gathering point for the city at large, celebrates its 75 anniversary this weekend.

The PNH is one of my favorite buildings in Hartford. I've gone there for lunch, gone after softball games (back when) and covered political stories there. Mayor Mike Peters had victory parties in the spacious first-floor dining room ("Look at those numbers!") and star-crossed Sen. Paul Tsongas had his last press conference there before dropping out of the race for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. The big second-floor auditorium boasts the finest dance floor in the city, according to my friend Ed Satkowski.

It's been the site of countless Polish dances, pageants and festivals. Generations of men and women met their spouses at the club, had their wedding receptions there and came back to celebrate their anniversaries. It was the focus of Pulaski Day parades, home to the Polish Debutantes Ball, at which local debs were escorted by cadets from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and so many other festivities. Presidents, governors, ambassadors, generals - the great and the near-great - have made their way to the Polish National Home.

If you're only passingly familiar with the building on Charter Oak Avenue, your first question may be: "Why doesn't it face the street?"

The answer is simple: It did. When the club was built, there was a street facing the front door, Governors Street. The city removed it in the late 1960s to build a housing project.

The story isn't the street, it's the hall. This remarkable edifice was built by a neighborhood of first-generation Polish factory workers.

Poles started coming to Hartford in the 1870s, refugees from yet another heroic and failed insurrection. They worked in the factories south of downtown; Colt, Capewell, Allen and others. The church, Sts. Cyril & Methodius, was built there in the early 20th century.

By the 1920s, there were 3,000 Poles living in the neighborhood, of an estimated 7,000 in the city, said Polish home historian and former board president Andrew Bogacki. They'd outgrown their small meeting hall. Many ethnic groups, including other groups of Poles, built modest clubhouses in cities across the country. Even Bogacki isn't quite sure why the community decided on something this grand. "Maybe it was our all-or-nothing mentality," he said.

Grand was the plan. Community leaders sold shares and broke ground on Oct. 8, 1929, just days before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the building opened a year later, Oct. 12, 1930. It was immediately acclaimed as the finest Polish center in the country.

The building survived 4 feet of water in the great 1936 flood, and it's survived other calamities. I asked Bogacki if it would survive the prosperity of the Polish-American community.

Other European ethnic clubs - Irish, German, French - have long since left Hartford to follow members to the suburbs. The factories that once supported the Hartford community are closed and only a handful of Poles still live in the neighborhood. New arrivals from Poland drop in but don't stay. The New Britain Polish community is much larger.

The World War II generation - Bogacki, Satkowski and others - are the heart and soul of the club, "the remnant of a generation that just loved this place," Bogacki said. But he said he's hopeful.

The club is well led, he said. The church and school, one of two Catholic schools left in the city, are still going strong. The club supports itself through rentals and its restaurant - open to the public and one of the best lunch deals in town. What Bogacki would like to see is some of the Polish veterans organizations in Hartford consolidate at the Polish National Home. While it would make sense, it's been a hard sell, he acknowledges. Being Polish, they cherish their independence.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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