Once a cultural hub for Warsaw’s A-listers, Empik building is placed on Register of Monuments for its rich history and “significant artistic values”
Known to many simply as EMPiK, a building at the bottom of Warsaw’s Nowy Świat street has been entered into the Register of Monuments after being hailed as a symbol of the capital’s reconstruction.
Set overlooking the iconic palm tree standing in the centre of Rondo de Gaulle’a, the building at Nowy Świat 15/17 was rebuilt between 1948 and 1951 to a design coined by Zygmunt Stępiński and Mieczysław Kuźma.
Prolific in their output, the pair played a crucial role in resurrecting the capital after its catastrophic occupation.
Stępiński, for instance, would go on to be credited with co-creating the W-Z highway and the capital’s MDM district; Kuźma, meanwhile, would later win a slew of plaudits for his work as the general director and chief designer of the reconstruction of the Old Town.
But though smaller in its scope, the duo’s joint work on Nowy Świat 15/17 was not an afterthought.
Set diagonally opposite what was then the Communist Party HQ, the building’s prominent location made it a prestige project – not losing a beat, its façade was used to espouse a message rich in propaganda: “The Whole Nation Is Building The Capital” it announced.
Opened for use in 1950, it temporarily housed the Supreme Council for the Capital’s Reconstruction, as well as the Trade Union of Culture & Art Workers.
However, it was not until the following year, on July 22nd, that the ribbon was officially cut and the building handed a new role as a true bastion of everyday culture.
Named the International Book & Press Club (Klub Międzynarodowej Prasy i Książki - or MPiC from where today’s Empik comes), the ground level housed a trendy café and bookstore, while the first floor played host to a reading room, lecture hall and spaces for foreign language lessons.
Fashionably styled with modern armchairs and tasteful furnishings, it channelled the wave of innocent optimism rippling around Poland as the country set about its painful healing process.
In the words of Professor Jakub Lewicki, the Conservator of Monuments in Mazovia: “The interiors were designed with panache and decorated with stuccoes and frescoes showing new Warsaw.”
Outside, it exuded a grandiose air in line with the pomposity of the Socialist Realist style that had become de rigueur, though were also subtle references to what had stood before via the inclusion of discreet classicist touches.
For all that, its defining features would be added in later years.
Paying homage to the address’s prior history, one section of the exterior – facing Al. Jerozolimskie – had been intentionally left blank and set aside for a mosaic.
Originally, this was to depict a group of builders gathered around a foreman holding a blueprint, but authorities had a change of heart and instead hired Władysław Zych to fill the wall with a work honouring one of the city’s most famous acts of wartime sabotage.
A visual artist widely celebrated for his expertise with glass and ceramics, Zych died before his piece was realized, and the arrangement was instead installed under the watchful eye of his wife, Wanda, herself a well-known artist whose patterns found themselves often used by the Cepelia folk-craft cooperative.
Unveiled in 1964, the mosaic depicted two men and a woman wielding a rifle, grenade and pistol in tribute to a pair of bold attacks carried out by the People’s Guard at this location.
Before the International Book & Press Club was constructed in the post-war years, the plot had contained a 19th century corner tenement that subsequently underwent numerous modifications in the decades that followed.
Though source information is blurry in its accuracy, most histories of Warsaw agree that by the 1850s the property housed a coffee shop on the ground level.
Over the following decades, it gained a cult following among the city’s artsy milieu who would gather there to enjoy live orchestral performances, sip Arabic coffee and drink the milk-based alcoholic cocktails that were popular at the time.
The dramatist Stefan Żeromski reputedly met his wife inside the café, while others suggest that the author Władysław Reymont penned the opening chapter of Chłopi there roundabout the turn-of-the-century.
The café’s popularity waned after Poland won her independence, but again regained its lustre when it was rebranded in the 1930s under the name of ‘Café Club’.
Featuring a subterranean dance floor for jazz fans, a cocktail bar, international press, and a first floor terrace that would allow guests to enjoy the summer breeze blowing in from the riverfront, it became a place of legend, with its sumptuous marble and chrome interiors attracting the city’s A-list.
When the city fell under Nazi-German occupation, fleeting success was enjoyed when part of Café Club was reinvented as Café Jaracz, a nightspot personally overseen by the famous actor and producer Stefan Jaracz.
The boom was short-lived and in 1940 the entire Café Club complex was flagged as Nur fur Deutsche (for Germans only).
A favoured hangout of Nazi officers, its newfound reputation did not escape the notice of the Polish underground and on October 24th, 1942, the People’s Guard (a movement founded as the armed wing of the country’s communist party) launched an evening grenade attack on the café in reprisal for the earlier execution of 50 communist activists being held in Pawiak Prison.
Around thirty Germans are thought to have been injured, and a year later a similar action was again undertaken by the People’s Guard under the leadership of Lech Kobyliński. This time, only four Germans were wounded.
Widely derided by the Home Army which was loyal to Poland’s London-based Government-in-exile, the efforts of the People’s Guard were regarded by many as a blundering failure.
However, in the post-war years they were unsurprisingly lauded by Poland’s communist authorities who sought to airbrush the Home Army from history and instead promote the limited achievements of the country’s wartime communist resistance (in fact, the first attack came to be lionized in a 1949 propaganda film by the name of Za wami pójdą inni).
Though the building was destroyed in 1944, it was therefore no surprise that when it was rebuilt space was dedicated not to just a mural celebrating the attacks, but also a memorial plaque that also remains on display to this very day.
Not that the story ends there. In one of history’s stranger quirks, Kobyliński later had a chance meeting with one of the German soldiers that had been present during the 1943 assault.
Accidentally meeting during a scientific conference decades later in Rostock, the two former foes shared a cognac while reminiscing about the events of that day.
Steeped in history, the building’s inclusion on the Register of Monuments has not come a day too soon.
Announcing the decision on Monday, Professor Lewicki justified the move by praising its “significant artistic values”, “individual aesthetic expression”, and its “rich architectural detail”.
“The building is also a valuable document of the design activity of the leading architects of the Capital Reconstruction Office, Zygmunt Stępiński and Mieczysław Kuźma,” he added.