The Philadelphia metropolitan area is home to many Americans of Polish descent. Polish immigrants and their descendants have had a significant impact on the city throughout its history. Many monuments and historic places in the city remain as a testament to their noteworthy contributions. The following paragraphs describe a sampling of the more famous sites in Philadelphia which have a Polish connection. Click on the links in the article to view photos of these memorable sites or watch a slide show of these and other Philadelphia landmarks after reading the article!
The city of "parks and squares" was founded in 1682 by William Penn, a wealthy Englishman who sought to provide a refuge to the Quakers, a pacifist Protestant sect that was not well liked in the home country. The name meant "city of brotherly love" and, at least during Penn's lifetime, it lived up to the ideal. His was the only colony that observed terms of treaties made with the local Native Americans. The industrious and tolerant Quakers made the city a leading port on the Eastern seaboard and a haven for all religious beliefs.
The peace was not meant to last. Located mid-way between the northern and southern colonies, Philadelphia became a center of resistance to English domination. It was here that representatives of the colonies met and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. Later the Continental Congress would preside in the Statehouse now known as Independence Hall. Soon two Poles would come to aid George Washington in the War of Independence: military engineer Tadeusz Kosciuszko and cavalry commander Kazimierz Pulaski.
Pulaski quickly distinguished himself in battle, even before receiving his rank as a Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He fought in several battles in the area including at Brandywine and Germantown, later going down to Savannah, Georgia, where he fell in a daring charge. For his sacrifice to the American cause, and to remember his presence in the area, Pulaski was honored with a heroic statue located in the park on the west side of Philadelphia's Art Museum.
Tadeusz Kosciuszko distinguished himself as a military engineer building fortifications at Billingsport and Red Bank on the Delaware River to guard the approach to Philadelphia. He earned high praise for the fortifications he constructed on the Hudson River at Saratoga, as his work made a major contribution to the victory won there. He constructed a series of forts at West Point, New York, making it so secure that the British never tried to attack it. Later, the United States Military Academy would be located at this site.
Kosciuszko returned to Poland and, after leading a dramatic though unsuccessful insurrection, was imprisoned in Russia. After being released into exile, he returned to the United States and stayed in Philadelphia. His adjutant, Julian Niemcewicz found rooms at a house on the corner of Third and Pine Streets. This is where Kosciuszko lived and entertained luminaries of American society, including Thomas Jefferson, a close friend, who was soon to become president of the United States.
Though his last visit in the city was long remembered, the location of his dwelling place faded into obscurity. Fortunately, when the historic old-city district was being revitalized in the 1960s, Edward Pinkowski an eminent Philadelphia historian specializing in Polish-American topics, located it again. He purchased the house with his own funds wanting to create a museum there. Unfortunately, the house was badly deteriorated and he had insufficient resources to restore it and set up the museum. Turning to the city's Polish community, he received support from City Councilman Joseph Zazyczny, industrialist Edward Piszek and many Polish ethnic clubs and organizations. The group action resulted in testimony before the United States Congress where, at last, the house was given National Memorial status and placed under the care of the National Park Service. In 1976, it opened as a Memorial and Museum dedicated to Kosciuszko. That same year the people of Poland donated a statue of Kosciuszko to the city which was placed in a prominent location on one of the city's wide parkways known as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
In the mid-1800s, the city was home to Henryk Dmochowski, a sculptor who also used the name "Sanders." He fled Poland in the aftermath of the 1830 insurrection and returned to participate, and die in, the insurrection of 1863. Though he was admired for his talent and his busts of Revolutionary War heroes which grace the American Capitol, he had difficulty in making a living because of the vagaries of the American economy. His last major work before returning to Poland was a memorial for the grave of his wife. Now known as the "Mother with Infants" monument, it portrays a woman holding two babies. Located in Laurel Hill, the city's most distinguished cemetery, it had been deteriorating because of neglect. Thanks to the efforts of the Philadelphia Chapter and the generosity of many individuals, in 2005 the Kosciuszko Foundation funded conservation work on the Dmochowski monument and established a $5,000 endowment at the Laurel Hill Cemetery for the perpetual upkeep of the monument.
Another monument in Philadelphia that was the work of a Polish immigrant is the majestic Benjamin Franklin Bridge which links the city to its neighbor, Camden, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. The engineer who planned and executed this record-breaking achievement in bridge building was Ralph Modjeski, son of actress Helena Modrzejewska. The bridge, started in 1924 and finished in 1926 for the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, turned out not only to be the longest suspension bridge on its completion but also a farsighted solution to the problems of road and rail transportation in the area. After a grand opening attended by United States president Calvin Coolidge, all its critics were proved wrong. It was not too big! Today, its seven lanes of traffic handle over 100,000 vehicles per day and the tracks built on the outside of the roadway accommodate rapid transit trains that run to the outlying communities. The slim towers that shattered precedents with their stark functional appearance and set a new style in American suspension bridges are today considered a symbol of the city and the bridge is a beloved landmark. It celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2001 for which Ralph Modjeski Pattison, great-grandson of the builder, came from Arizona to take part in the ceremonies. The following year a book translation of Professor Jozef Glomb's biography of Ralph Modjeski called, A Man Who Spanned Two Eras: The story of bridge engineer Ralph Modjeski, was published by the Philadelphia Chapter. By a lucky coincidence, pre-publication copies were ready for presentation to first ladies Laura Bush and Jolanta Kwasniewska when they visited Philadelphia. The presentation was made at the Polish-American Cultural Center which is only a few blocks away from the bridge.
This was not Jolanta Kwasniewska's first visit to the city. At an earlier time, she toured the Polish neighborhood of Port Richmond and dined at the already well-known Teresa's Buffet, a local restaurant. Richmond is one of several neighborhoods in Philadelphia that have a distinctly Polish flavor. Two others are Bridesburg and Manayunk. In the latter is where in the late 1950s businessman Edward Piszek started his pioneering business manufacturing prepared frozen fish products. Though those early days were difficult, his "Mrs. Paul's" trademark soon became recognized for quality "heat and eat" foods. Some years ago the company was sold, and the man known as the "Fishcake King" began to devote himself to cultural projects that more often than not had something to do with Poland. Mr. Piszek, who was a Kosciuszko Foundation Trustee during the 1970s, passed away on March 27, 2004.
Edward Piszek was not the only entrepreneur to build a thriving business here. It was just outside Philadelphia that Frank Piasecki invented and built the first practical tandem-rotor helicopter creating a new industry. His original factory is now known as the Vertol Division of the Boeing Corporation which produces helicopters for military and civilian use. Meanwhile, he and his sons operate an aviation research center. Interestingly, some of the staff working there are engineers who have received their training in Poland.
Another engineer and inventor of Polish background was Walter Golaski who perfected the manufacturing techniques for making the first practical artificial vascular replacements. Though his business grew to large proportions, Walter never forgot his Polish roots. Most notably, he served as Chairman of the Board at the Kosciuszko Foundation, which encouraged the exchange of students and scholars between the United States and Poland. This helped to shape a positive image of Poland because Americans of all ethnic backgrounds were encouraged to participate in the Foundation's programs and experience Polish culture directly.
Though many Poles have chosen to seek the open spaces of suburbia on the edges of the city, there still are ethnic clusters around Polish Churches like St. Jadwiga's off the city's grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway and St. Stanislaw's just to the south of the old city historic district. This is because the initial Polish arrivals to Philadelphia have always been drawn to places where there was a already a group of people who spoke their language and that was often near a Polish church. In recent times, even before the election of Pope John Paul II, the Polish residents could be proud to have one of their own as the head of the Catholic hierarchy in the city. John Cardinal Krol was archbishop and shepherd of all the Catholics in Philadelphia from 1961 to 1987 and though born in Cleveland, Ohio, he became a Philadelphian by choice.
It was during his times that the Polish community built an imposing monument to the memory of Nicholaus Copernicus just opposite the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. And when Philadelphia became a Sister City to Torun under an international program for promoting friendly inter-city communications, trade and cultural exchanges, the fact was noted on a granite slab in "Sister Cities Plaza" also located near the cathedral.
These are but a few of the many stories and accomplishments of Philadelphia's Polonia which continues to grow and thrive as part of a vital American city. No doubt, in the future, there will be more to add to its fascinating history!
Article and photos by Peter J. Obst
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