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At 80, Chicago’s Polish Museum of America tries to stay relevant

Julita Siegel, the photography curator at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

In a city that could once boast of having the largest number of residents of Polish ancestry anywhere outside of Poland, the Polish Museum of America in West Town was long a centerpiece of the largest and oldest ethnic-Polish neighborhood in Chicago.

But New York surpassed Chicago in the number of Polish residents in the past 15 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau. And the Polish Museum, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave., struggled to remain relevant as its core constituency of Polish-Americans moved elsewhere in the city and suburbs.

Now, as it marks its 80th anniversary, the museum is aiming to reach a broader, younger audience who might not know the neighborhood at one time was Chicago’s Polish downtown. The area was home to a flourishing business district filled with Polish butchers, bakers, bars, grocery stores, photo studios, newspapers and insurance companies and a total of more than 100,000 parishioners attending six Polish Roman Catholic churches.

The new effort involves digitizing its collection of historic documents and culturally rich art and artifacts to make them more widely accessible, starting with its photographic archive and including an audio guide that’s in the works.

So far, 5,000 images from an estimated 25,000 photographs have been digitized and posted online, says Julita Siegel, the museum’s photography collection curator and archivist.

A sculpture of Henryk Sienkiewicz sits between two paintings displayed at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times
A sculpture of Henryk Sienkiewicz sits between two paintings displayed at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

Siegel also put together a traveling exhibition, unveiled this month, of archival photos showcasing the area’s history from 1850 to 1941. The 16 panels of photos with text will travel to cities with large Polish populations and cultural centers before being shown in Poland.

The effort to post the Polish Museum’s collections online is a much slower, more complicated process than it would be at a major museum, Siegel says.

“Digitization at a bigger museum or archive might be an equally large-scale, streamlined operation,” she says. “For us, it means having one 11-by-17 scanner, one computer and a single pair of hands, with occasional help from volunteers and interns. You go box by box, folder by folder.”

The museum’s collections include:

• Documents of American Revolutionary War heroes Gens. Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski.

“Pulaski at Savannah” by Stanislaw Batowski. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times
“Pulaski at Savannah” by Stanislaw Batowski. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

• Letters written by Polish kings on parchment paper with wax seals. The oldest is a 1555 royal seal of King Zygmunt II August, considered unmatched and priceless.

• Extensive records from Polonian churches, organizations and businesses.

• The archive of Dan Rostenkowski — the longtime Northwest Side congressman whose tenure in Washington ended with a felony corruption conviction for personal use of official funds — and his ancestors.

A 23-feet-tall, stained-glass window from the World’s Fair titled “Symbol of Poland Reborn” at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times
A 23-feet-tall, stained-glass window from the World’s Fair titled “Symbol of Poland Reborn” at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

• Paintings, textiles, sculpture, graphic art, folk art and military and currency artifacts from the 1939 New York World’s Fair’s Polish Pavilion. There’s also a 23-feet-tall, stained-glass window from the New York World’s Fair titled “Symbol of Poland Reborn,” depicting various regions, trades, craftsmen, musicians, artists, intellectuals and symbols of Polish nationality and achievement.

“Girl in Silver” by Patricia Butchin on display at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle /  Sun-Times
“Girl in Silver” by Patricia Butchin on display at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

A second-floor collection showcases the Buckingham Hotel suite in New York where pianist, humanitarian and former Polish Prime Minister Ignacy Jan Paderewski spent the final months of his life. His favorite brand of cigarettes, a specially made leather chair that he used to practice the piano and the tuxedos he wore to perform are encased in the glass-enclosed displays.

The scene at the opening of the Polish Museum of America in 1937. | Władysław Różański / Polish Museum of America
The scene at the opening of the Polish Museum of America in 1937. | Władysław Różański / Polish Museum of America

Alongside the museum is a lending and research library, founded in 1915, with books in Polish and in English. The library is also home to the Polish Genealogical Society of America.

The Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
The Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
A display at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times
A display at the Polish Museum of America. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

New rental housing planned for museum parking lot

The Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, which owns the building that houses the Polish Museum of America and has its headquarters on the second floor, is selling an extra, unused parking lot for the museum at the northeast corner of Walton and Noble streets.

Plans — still subject to neighborhood groups’ approval — call for the 49,000-square-foot lot to be rezoned and developed into a five-story, 143-unit rental-apartment building and 17 two-story rental townhouses, said Darren Sloniger, president of Marquette Cos., the Naperville developer negotiating to buy the land.

The sale is expected to be completed in June, according to Joseph A. Drobot Jr., president of the Catholic Union. He said the fraternal organization decided to sell because of the demand for residential development and the cost of maintenance and insurance.

“With the market the way it is, it was time to sell,” Drobot said.

Neither Drobot nor the developer would disclose the purchase price.

The property is about a block north of St. Boniface Church, which is being redeveloped into 15 residential units.