Plans to rebuild Saski Palace are back on with many saying it is the final piece of the jigsaw in capital’s post-war reconstruction
Three years after a formal declaration of intent was signed, plans to rebuild Saski Palace have received a considerable boost after it was revealed that the action will form one of the cornerstone pledges of the government’s ‘New Deal’.
In the process, the announcement has reignited old arguments for and against the project with those opposed to the plan pointing to its immense cost – which could reach an eye-watering PLN 1 billion – as well as issues relating to preserving the integrity of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Those in favour of the project, however, point to the palace’s overriding relevance to Polish history and culture, not to mention its symbolic importance to not just Warsaw, but the country as a whole.
Notwithstanding the intense political wrangling that is certain to follow, given the palace’s size and story there are many that view its reconstruction as the final piece of the jigsaw in terms of the city’s post-war rebuilding.
Cited by some historians as “one of the greatest achievements of 18th century Polish urban planning”, the creation of the Saxon Axis was almost visionary in its concept and saw a swathe of land readapted to serve military, communication and residential purposes. Anchoring it all was the palace itself.
Influenced in its style by Versailles, the first palace on the site was built between 1661 and 1676 to a design by the prolific Tylman van Gameren for the poet Jan Andrzej Morsztyn.
In 1713 the so-called Morsztyn Palace was purchased by Augustus II The Strong, and it was on his behest that work on both the Axis and the expansion and reshaping of the palace began. It was at this time, also, that it became known as the Saski Palace.
Work continued under the reign of Augustus III, but whilst the building lost its status as a royal residence after the monarch’s death in 1763, its significance did not diminish.
Later housing an acclaimed Lyceum, it was here that the Chopin family lived for several years in a second floor apartment on the right wing of the palace. With his father employed as a French teacher at the school, the family were allowed to stay in teachers apartments for a substantial part of the composer’s youth.
The school’s ties with the palace were severed in 1817 when the Russian Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich – who would later become the widely hated Governor of Poland – commandeered the palace for military use.
It was an assassination attempt on his life that precipitated the 1830-1831 November Uprising, and it was as a consequence of this bloody rebellion that Saski Palace was severely damaged.
Purchased from the ruling Russian authorities in 1837 by a locally-based Russian construction magnate called Ivan Skwarcow, it was rebuilt between 1838 and 1842 to a blueprint authored by the architect Adam Idźkowski. Among other innovations, Idźkowski introduced a double-row of colonnades as the central connecting element of the palace.
Additionally, in 1841 a cast iron obelisk designed by Antonio Corazzi was added to commemorate seven high-ranking Polish officers that had been killed during the November Uprising whilst remaining faithful to the Tsar.
In this vein, for much of the second half of the century the palace – and its immediate surroundings – could be regarded as something of a symbol of Russian hegemony. Sold back to the Russian authorities after the death of Skwarcow, it again filled a military role, this time as the HQ of Russian Command of the 3rd Warsaw Military District.
As an uncomfortable reminder as to who ruled the roost, a towering orthodox cathedral was also added to the courtyard – later, when Poland regained its independence, it would be demolished in a move seen as critical to exorcizing the ghost of the petitions.
These inter-war years arguably represented the palace’s golden age. Home to Poland’s General Staff, victory over the Bolsheviks at the 1920 Battle of Warsaw was partially plotted here and this was followed by a spate of patriotic-minded actions: a statue of Prince Józef Poniatowski was brought from exile in Gomel and placed in front in 1923, and two years later the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was unveiled.
In 1935, meanwhile, the square was rechristened to honour the architect of the modern Polish state, Marshal Józef Piłsudski.
Still, its story was not complete and during the 30s the resident Cipher Bureau broke the German Enigma code for the first time inside their Saski Palace offices.
The palace’s totemic importance to the very notion of Polish identity was not lost on the Nazis who subsequently renamed the square in front Adolf Hitler Platz. When the 1944 Warsaw Uprising was brutally suppressed, the palace’s destruction was guaranteed as the occupying Germans sought to obliterate Warsaw – and in particular references to its national heritage – before their eventual withdrawal.
Amid the ruins, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier survived these detonations, and has since become a sharp reminder of the suffering and destruction visited upon Poland by foreign powers.
Moreover, the square itself has continued to be central to the story of the nation with its vast expanses hosting huge crowds for papal masses, military parades, remembrance gatherings and suchlike.
Saliently, this is not superfluous information rather a strong indicator of how many perceive the importance of Saski and its wider role as a symbol of Poland’s independence. Rebuilding the palace, argue many, would reach beyond the mere physical act of reconstructing a lost architectural treasure.
Arousing strong passions on either side, one thing is for certain: whatever the future holds, it promises to add another complex layer to the palace’s rich story.