By Mark Kamienski
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2003
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Tucked away at 60 Charter Oak Avenue, an area now known as Charter Oak/Sheldon section, is an architectural gem of Hartford history: the Polish National Home. This three-story, art-deco structure was built more than 72 years ago as a centerpiece for Polish cultural and social activities in Hartford and the central Connecticut region. Today, it still houses various Polish cultural groups and attracts many people with its exceptional architecture and appetizing, traditional Polish cuisine.
Successive waves of Polish immigrants in the 1890s and first quarter of the 20th century made southeast Hartford their home because it was within walking distance of neighborhood factories, such as Colt Firearms, Capewell Manufacturing, and Atlantic Tool. After establishing their Roman Catholic Church, SS. Cyril and Methodius, on Governor Street the Poles set about creating a central location, outside of the church, where they could preserve Polish culture, tradition, language, and history.
A nonprofit foundation, The Polish National Home of Hartford, Inc., was formed in 1928 to raise the $150,000 construction cost. This was done largely by selling shares in the new building to fellow Poles for $25 per share, with a limit of $2,000 per person to assure community ownership. Construction at 100 Governor Street began days before the 1929 stock market crash and was completed on October 12, 1930. Architect Henry F. Ludorf of New Britain used a modified art-deco style, combining ornamentation with a sober, flat, machinelike look. The building stood out in the neighborhood, and made a statement about the social life of the Hartford’s Polish community. The strong stone and brick construction and the stylistic touch of bas-relief sculpture helped make the Polish National Home a magnificent structure.
The 80 by 90 foot building looks almost exactly as it did in 1930. A spacious front lobby leads visitors to a barroom and main dining room, seating more than 300 people. Another large lobby and a ballroom, complete with stage and balcony, make up the second floor. The third floor contains one large hospitality room and a projection booth. Storage space and a large meeting room have replaced the basement’s bowling alleys, game and locker rooms, and shower facilities.
Another constant is the traditional Polish food, prepared from scratch by Polish-born cooks. The Home has long been famous for its pierogi (cheese-filled dumplings), golabki (stuffed cabbage), placki (potato pancakes), kapusniak (cabbage soup), and, of course, kielbasa.
The Polish National Home has survived many difficult obstacles including the 1936 flood that destroyed the basement and urban redevelopment, which led to the wholesale razing of homes and buildings in the Charter Oak/Sheldon area. When Governor and Woodbridge streets were closed the building’s new address became 60 Charter Oak Avenue. Yet the Polish National Home survived and in October 1983 it was included on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite the changes to the surrounding area and the fluctuating economic fortunes of the city, the Polish National Home remains a monument to Hartford’s past, and a contributor to the city’s future.
Mark Kamienski, a freelance writer from Newington, is a member of the Polish National Home Board of Directors. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in American Studies at Trinity College.
The Polish National Home is open seven days a week. For more information about operating hours, hall rental, or events call 860-247-1784.
Photo: Nancy O. Albert.