Jan Zachwatowicz
Pomnik Jana Zachwatowicza. Fot. Adrian Grycuk, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL, via Wikimedia Commons

Jan Zachwatowicz – Distinguished advocate of restoration of Warsaw’s Old Town

Prof. Dr. Jan Zachwatowicz was one of the main specialists involved in the process of rebuilding Polish cities after World War II. The architect rendered exceptional service in this field, giving direction to the work and, against accepted principles, deciding to lift monuments from ruins. His great contribution to the reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town was commemorated with a monument unveiled in 2021.

Jan Zachwatowicz was born on 4 March 1900 in Gatczyna near Saint Petersburg. It was there that he completed his studies at the Institute of Civil Engineers. After arriving in Warsaw in 1924, he nostrified his architect’s diploma at the Warsaw University of Technology, where he became an assistant at the Department of Hand Drawing. He also quickly became involved in the work of the Society for the Care of Monuments of the Past. In 1929, he married Maria Chodźkówna, who was also studying at the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology.

Prof. Dr. Jan Zachwatowicz (1900-1983). Collection of the National Digital Archives

In 1930, he became an assistant, and then an assistant professor, at the Department of Polish Architecture, founded by Professor Oskar Sosnowski, which brought together many eminent scholars of various specialisations. His aim was to deepen his knowledge of monuments in Poland, among other things by carrying out inventory work during holiday camps. The materials acquired in this way became an invaluable treasure trove in the rescue and reconstruction of buildings destroyed during World War II, including Warsaw’s Old Town.

View of Castle Square, 1947 and 2020. photo by Henry N. Cobb and whiteMAD/Mateusz Markowski

In 1936, Zachwatowicz defended his doctoral thesis. During World War II, he took an active part in rescuing and transporting archives, collections of drawings and documentation of monuments from the insurgent capital. During the war, he was also active in the Government Delegation for Poland, among other things directing work to prepare conservation services for work after the war.

Piwna Street in the Old Town, 1947 and 2020. photo Henry N. Cobb and whiteMAD/Mateusz Markowski

In 1945, Jan Zachwatowicz was appointed to head the Office for the Reconstruction of the Capital, and shortly afterwards he became general conservator. His alumni and colleagues recalled him as a person of great charisma and almost unparalleled negotiating skills. These came in handy when, against the internationally accepted rules, the ‘art of conservation’ and against the opinion of many other specialists, he successfully persuaded Poles to rebuild monuments destroyed during World War II.

Old Town Square, view of Dekerta Street from Świętojańska Street, 1944 and 2020. Photo: Museum of Warsaw and whiteMAD/Mateusz Markowski



He was the author of the concept of rebuilding Warsaw’s Old Town – against ideas to leave the area as rubble that is a monument to the city’s history, or to build up the Old Town with modern blocks of flats. Together with Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, they redesigned the Gothic exterior of St. John’s Cathedral. Despite the contradictions with the conservation doctrine of the time, the reconstruction of the Old Town won international recognition and an entry on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Old Town in different periods. Photo: mapa.um.warszawa.pl

1935 i 1945

1945 i 2020



1935 i 2020

When the scale and form of the country’s post-war reconstruction was under discussion in ruined Poland, Jan Zachwatowicz said:
“The importance of the monuments of the past for the nation was highlighted with drastic clarity by the experience of recent years, when the Germans, wishing to destroy us as a nation, demolished the monuments of our past. For a nation and the monuments of its culture are one. Unable to accept that the monuments of our culture will be torn away from us, we will reconstruct them, we will rebuild them from the foundations in order to pass on to the generations, if not the authentic then at least the exact form of these monuments, alive in our memory and available in the materials.”

View of the Old Town, 1945 and 2019 Photo Warsaw – on the destruction and reconstruction of the city, Warsaw: ‘Interpress’ Publishers, pp. 283 and Google Earth

“At all costs, the remnants of cultural heritage had to be saved from final annihilation, and in order for these remnants to have some meaning and to be able to fulfil, at least to some extent, the role we assign to monuments in the life of a nation and in the shaping of its culture, they had to be given a form close to their proper form. Of course, this is, in the sublime science of conservation, a retreat of many decades, but on our ground it is the only way to proceed. The cataclysm of the last war put the matter even more sharply. Whole pages of our history, written in stone in the history of architecture, were deliberately ripped out. A sense of responsibility towards future generations demands the reconstruction of what has been destroyed, a complete reconstruction that is aware of the tragedy of the historical falsity committed.”

Old Town Square, Dekerta side. 1944 and 2020. photo Ewa Faryaszewska/Museum of Warsaw, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons and whiteMAD/Mateusz Markowski

The architect oversaw the reconstruction of monuments not only in Warsaw. He also had a hand in the decision to raise the Main City of Gdańsk from the rubble, as well as a number of historical buildings scattered around Poland, such as the collegiate church in Wiślica, tenement houses in the Old Town in Poznań or Opole, the cathedral in Gniezno and the castle in Malbork. Together with Jan Bogusławski, Jan Zachwatowicz was also the initiator and author of the reconstruction of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, which was carried out in the years 1971-1984. The traces of the activity of the outstanding architect and historian are also plates with the Blue Shield symbol, thanks to which we can recognise monuments protected by law today.

View from the Old Town Square to Krzywe Koło Street, circa 1945 and 2020. Source: National Museum in Warsaw and whiteMAD/Mateusz Markowski

Jan Zachwatowicz died on 18 August 1983. He was buried in the Powązki cemetery (cemetery section 166-6-25). Thanks to his merits, Warsaw is today one of the most visited European capitals, and many other Polish cities and towns can be the pride of the country.

Długa Street and the Old Town in 1946 and 2018. Source: szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl and Google Earth

In April 2011, the pedestrian thoroughfare located in Warsaw between the inner and outer defensive walls, on the section from Piekarska Street to the Vistula escarpment, was given the name Międzymurze Jan Zachwatowicza. on 4 March 2021, the 121st anniversary of the architect’s birth, a monument to him was unveiled near the Old Town. The great architect will forever walk the streets of his life’s work.

Source: culture.pl, nid.pl

Read also: Architects | Urban Planning | Monuments | History | Warsaw | Architecture in Poland

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