Like a Phoenix from the Ashes: the Reconstruction of the Royal Castle in Warsaw

The Royal Castle in Warsaw is the symbol of the sovereignty of the Polish state. It used to be the seat of the Polish kings, it is where the meetings of the Polish Sejm were held, and it witnessed many historic events. Both laudable, like the homage paid by the tsar of Russia to the Polish king Sigismund III Vasa, and infamous, like the consent of the Polish deputies for the First Partition of Poland.  The latter was depicted by Jan Matejko in his Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland, a famous oil painting which is currently being presented in the Royal Castle. With the castle being such an important symbol, having it reconstructed after it was turned into rubble during the Warsaw Uprising should be an obvious matter. Nevertheless, the entire process took many years, and those who wanted it reconstructed had to face many obstacles, not only of technical nature.

Decision to rebuild the Royal Castle in Warsaw

When the war ended and the first decisions about the reconstruction of the city were taken, many people considered the reconstruction of the royal residence to be a priority. Obviously, the political scene of those times wasn’t too favorable in terms of such decisions (to say the least). But the supporters of the reconstruction were very determined and soon they managed to have the portal of the Grodzka Gate assembled. It was a symbolic act that was perceived by the people as a sign that the royal residence had to be reconstructed. And political decisions followed. The new Sejm (appointed during rigged elections) decided that the castle would be reconstructed within five years and would become “the seat of the highest authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland and a center for the cultural life of the popular masses”.

Back then, the party leader was Bolesław Bierut, who was fond of art and architecture (as long as it was ideologically correct, of course). His plan was to make the castle his future residence, and he wanted the reconstructed building to be far from its original shape. The new castle was supposed to fit nicely into the socialist-realist reconstruction plan of Warsaw. There were a number of ideas, including erecting a skyscraper or a building that would block the view of St. John’s Cathedral towers. Nevertheless, apart from assembling the Grodzka Gate, no other works were undertaken.

Reconstruction plans fall apart

After Bierut’s and Stalin’s death, the favorable atmosphere in terms of reconstructing the castle was gone. The new First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka, frankly said that he had no intention of rebuilding it. Not even professor Stanisław Lorentz, the director of the National Museum, managed to convince him. A group of enthusiasts worked on their own reconstruction plans. All these efforts died with the decision to “clear” the area of the castle, made in 1963. Concrete was poured all over the area, benches and flowerbeds were installed, and there was a bus loop nearby. What was left of the castle was the Żeromski apartment wall and a piece of the Saxon wing, which was soon pulled down. The dreams to have the castle were buried…until 1971.

Community action to rebuild the castle

The change of the party leader was a great opportunity for professor Lorentz and other enthusiasts of the reconstruction of the castle. The new leader, Edward Gierek, was different from his predecessor, and he was looking for support for the new changes within the party. And so in 1971 a decision was made to rebuild the castle in its historical form. The Civil Committee of Rebuilding the Royal Castle in Warsaw was created. However, the authorities set one condition: the reconstruction had to be funded and conducted by the citizens. This condition was tough and could result in failure. It’s no secret that Poles did not suffer from excess money in their pockets, and “community action work” was something that induced bad associations.

In front of the construction area, a large money box was placed, where people could put money to fund the reconstruction. And this turned out to be a large success of the Polish nation! The money box was never empty, and even the Poles who lived abroad supported the reconstruction with their money. Lotteries, cultural events and concerts were held, during which money was collected. Twenty-seven thousand people volunteered to help with the reconstruction (with no remuneration for their work). It was a collective effort, a uniting moment, very much needed in such difficult times.

Reconstructing the interiors of the Royal Castle in Warsaw

Three years later, the body of the building was ready. The event of installing the cupola on the Clock Tower was very solemn. Finally, after thirty-five years, the clock started ticking again. Experienced architects from all over the country, along with young students of the Academy of Fine Arts, reconstructed the interiors of the castle, basing on the fragments of sculptures, wood carvings and paintings that survived the war, as well as pictures, photos and even old sources from before king Stanisław August Poniatowski ordered to introduce changes in the interiors of the castle. Forty kilograms of gold were used to decorate the castle.

When everything seemed to go according to the plan, new difficulties emerged. At the end of the reconstruction process, as the economic situation of the country was getting worse, people started donating less and less money,  and the overall enthusiasm for the reconstruction weakened. What is more, Gierek came up with the idea that the head of the country should reside in the castle. Luckily, this never happened, and the castle managed to obtain funds as a cultural institution.

Opening the castle to the public

The castle was opened to the public on August 31, 1984. Back then, fewer rooms were available for visitors than today, but people were very excited. Of course, there was also some criticism of the way the castle was reconstructed. Nevertheless, the castle was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List and served as an inspiration for neighboring countries.

But that was not the end of the reconstruction process. The Kubicki Arcades were reconstructed and opened to the public already in the 21st century, and the lower castle garden was opened very recently, in 2019.

Today, the Royal Castle is not only a tourist attraction and a must-see place for visitors in Warsaw, but also a place where art exhibitions, concerts and many important events take place.

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