One Step Ahead: Starring in films and music videos, TFN explores the story behind what is reputed to be Poland’s most stunning staircase
Some know it as the Pearl of Praga; others, simply as the home of the most beautiful stairwell in Poland.
A sure fire entry into any rundown of ‘the seven wonders of Warsaw’, the building on Kłopotowskiego 38 has been intriguing city insiders for years, enchanting those who visit with its sense of ethereal.
Standing on what was then ul. Szeroka, it was completed in 1906, a time when Jews constituted approximately a third of Praga’s population. Much of Jewish life was centred around this very street, with manufacturing workshops squeezed in alongside cobblers, tailors and small, foggy bars selling nips of vodka to the masses. A hive of working class activity, the building’s unveiling heralded an early, tentative step towards gentrification.
Financed by the Halber family – the owners of a couple of brickyards in Marki – it was most likely designed by Ludwik Panczakiewicz, an architect with an A-Class reputation. Having earlier collaborated on the design of the nearby cathedral, his other notable achievements included working on the construction of Hala Gwardii and Mirowska.
Decorated with rich art nouveau flourishes, Praga’s affluent Jews flocked to the building and it was soon heavily patronised by the professional classes – transferred to the ownership of a pharmaceutical dealer named Arnold Szpinak in 1920, an upscale social scene thrived during these inter-war years thanks to a fancy tea room on the ground floor, the additional presence of what was reputed to be one of the most luxurious dining rooms in the district, as well as a patisserie overseen by Moshe Cukierman – for reasons unknown, Cukierman would later take his life in the basement of No. 38. An equally unhappy fate awaited the rest of the residents, all of whom were herded into the Ghetto in 1940. How many survived is unclear.
The building escaped the war intact, only to later fall foul of the post-war authorities. Simultaneously resisting restitution claims from Szpinak’s ancestors, the city ruined many of the interior details: window frames, stoves, doors and wrought iron were all requisitioned, while ample-sized apartments were hastily divided up to create more flats. Deterioration set in.
Surprisingly though, exterior elements were left untouched with the stone floral adornments and pilasters marking it out as one of the capital’s top surviving examples of the Secessionist style. Ironically, too, it was the building’s decline that, in many ways, would benefit it in future.
Entered via a peeling, green plaster courtyard painted a shocking shade of Kermit green, its defining feature undoubtedly remains an oval-shaped staircase skirted with an elaborate balustrade – thought to be completely unique, a recent renovation has returned it to its best, prompting many to call it the most beautiful set of stairs in Poland.
But even without all of the meticulous restoration work, it was a title that was well warranted regardless. Looking cobwebbed and dishevelled, and coloured in a surreal shade of mint, its previous incarnation saw it dubbed by urban explorers “the emerald staircase”. Seemingly spiralling on forever, and appearing like a cross between a David Lynch film and a Nick Cave video, the surreal nature of the backdrop wasn’t lost on the public.
Rated as one of the city’s most Instragrammable attractions, it earned a reputation as a favourite shooting spot for Just Married couples and renegade filmmakers – among its numerous media appearances, the cast-ironstairs played a starring role in the Tarantino-influenced thriller Diversion End and The Man With The Magic Box, a Polish Academy Award winner about a time travelling janitor.
As importantly, the stairwell has been vital to the building’s creative revival. “When we saw it,” says Krzysztof Kudelski, “it was love at first sight.” Kudelski, who works as a film editor, had been looking for a space to house a collective of artistically-minded friends.
“At the time,” he says, “the local Praga authorities were offering huge discounts of up to 80% for those involved in arts and culture, and we were totally bowled over when we saw the stairs.”
Moving into a top floor space in 2011, the name 81 Stopni was chosen as a reference to the number of steps. Home to six studios as well as an offbeat gallery area currently preparing for an exhibition titled Cloud Studies, it’s nothing if not an uber-cool reflection of contemporary Praga. Shared with graphic designers, filmmakers, sculptors and painters, over 40 shows have been organized in its eight years of life.
“Most of the artists we present in the gallery are artists rooted in the field of painting,” says Klaudia Jaworska of 81 Stopni, “but in their projects they have developed creative searches for photography, graphics, installation or audio visual techniques.”
Visited by big shot New York art dealers, and appearing as the backdrop in T.Love’s Marsz video, it’s a place that crackles with creativity. As Kudelski talks about mysteriously locked doors and unseen piano-tinkling neighbours, it’s not hard to understand the magical appeal of this charming, secret world – certainly, it’s one that’s fitting of a stairwell that’s struck the imagination of the aesthetically engaged.