May 12, 2021

A town hall is an indispensable element of the urban landscape – especially in historical towns. How is it possible that a city like Krakow, which boasts such well-preserved architecture, doesn’t have one? In this article, we will attempt to uncover this mystery and explain the complicated history behind Krakow’s lack of one of the most important municipal buildings.

History of the Town Hall

Krakow was granted city rights (known as the location privilege) on 5 June 1257 under the medieval Magdeburg Law. Before that date, though, Krakow was already a reasonably big and wealthy city. The first references to it in historical records date back to 965 AC, when it was described as a rich commercial centre surrounded by forests. But even as the city grew over the years as a centre of trade, there is still not much information to be found about the town hall. What we do know is that there was a wooden one that burned down in 1306, which was later replaced by a new brick building.

The town hall was initially a two-storey, rectangular construction with a courtyard in the centre. It was a complex that served various functions, with casemates in the cellars, a granary and a tower adjoining both sides of the building. In later years, the building was enlarged with another storey and an arcaded porch, and decorations such as gables with pinnacles and turrets on the corners were also added. The town hall tower that is still preserved to this day was built in the 15th century. In the 16th century, the building also housed an arsenal, presumably as a result of the numerous military conflicts taking place at that time. A balcony supported on 12 ornamental consoles was built, but it collapsed in 1702, crushing several Swedish soldiers below. The 18th century was a time when the building was both heavily destroyed and subsequently renovated, with a classicist-style guardhouse for the Polish garrison also being built in 1782.

From 1795, Polish lands were separated and attached to three countries: Russia, Prussia and Austria. The name of Poland also disappeared from the maps of Europe. Given the turbulent political and socio-economic situation, it is no surprise that buildings – even one as important as a town hall – were neglected somewhat. Krakow’s importance as a city had begun to diminish in the 17th century. Having been the capital of the country from when it was established in the 10th century, and then permanently from 1320 until 1596, Krakow found its role changing when the then king, Sigismund III, transferred the capital to Warsaw. During the partitions, the city was home to the Polish intelligentsia and large numbers of students, but it had little political significance. The city was even considered relatively backward and stagnant. When the Free City of Krakow was established as a result of the decision of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the city’s executive authorities were also created, headed by the Governing Senate. Following a decision of the city council in 1817, the building next to the town hall, which had once housed the granary, was demolished and would lay in ruins for decades. Three years later, in 1820, the reconstruction work on the town hall itself began in earnest. However, the work was done so badly that the walls of the town hall were seriously damaged during the process and the entire building had to be demolished as a result. Only the cellars and the tower remained – as they do to this day.

Town Hall Tower from the side of Grodzka Street

The real reason?

Even though the demolition of the Town Hall is considered to have been the terrible result of poor work, there are also suggestions that it may have been carried out by design. Before 1817, there had been numerous calls for many medieval buildings (and also ones from different periods) to be removed on the basis they were outdated and disfigured the city. In 1821, one of the senators of the Free City of Krakow called for the demolition of the town hall tower in the local newspapers. By his reasoning, the lonely tower was without value and disrupted the view of the Main Square.

Luckily, in the second half of the 19th century, historical architecture started to be seen not as outdated and useless, but as something worthy of preservation. Even if they were not aesthetically pleasing for everyone (although nowadays the majority of people are astonished by the beauty of the gothic style), such buildings are invaluable witnesses of history and they finally came to be considered as such.

Remains of the Town Hall

As already mentioned, the only parts of the town hall that are left are the tower and the cellars. However, even after the town hall itself had been demolished, the guardhouse that was adjacent to the town hall tower survived and was even expanded in 1829. Unfortunately, it was used by the Nazis during World War II and the people of Krakow came to associate it so closely with that fact that it was decided to demolish it in 1946.

The tower was renovated in the early 1960s and nowadays it houses a branch of the Historical Museum of Krakow. It is open from April to September and is a beautiful sightseeing point from where you can admire the entire old town.

Most of the cellars had been buried during the demolition of the town hall, but they were also excavated and cleaned out during the 1960s. Since then, they have been used as the setting for a satirical theatre, and they are currently the site of an underground stage of the Ludowy Theatre, called the Stage under the Town Hall.

A new Town Hall

When the new political system – communism – started to take hold after 1945, the authorities intended to build an ideal new city called Nowa Huta. They wanted to create a city that would outclass Krakow, which had regained its power and importance in the 20th century. The communist regime rejected on principle everything that Krakow – the home of kings – symbolised, namely the aristocracy, the rich history of independence struggles, and the intellectual and artistic spheres. Nowa Huta was planned out by pre-war architects and town planners even before construction began, giving it a regular, logical and stylistically coherent urban layout. According to the blueprints that have survived, there was also the intention to build a new town hall. The period from 1954 to 1957, after Stalin's death and the worker revolts, was the time of the so-called Khrushchev Thaw. At that time, significant changes were introduced in all countries of the Soviet bloc, and urban goals were also changed. In 1956, the construction of Nowa Huta was stopped and the town hall, which was one of the largest uncompleted projects, was never built. Moreover, in 1951, Nowa Huta was incorporated into Krakow itself; it was still supposed to become the most important district, but construction of an administrative complex was no longer considered necessary. The aesthetic requirements also changed after the thaw and so Nowa Huta was hastily completed in a manner that was still consistent with the plans, but without the implementation of major projects.

A model of Nowa Huta Photo: Wojciech Łoziński, from the collection of Arkadiusz Sitarski

Although a town hall was built for the town of Kazimierz (before it became part of Krakow), that building was converted into an Ethnographic Museum over 100 years ago. And nowadays, there is no longer a need for a new town hall as the city has been able to manage its affairs perfectly well without one for such a long time. And with the gothic tower also serving other functions, we are simply happy to have the opportunity to admire its beauty on a daily basis.

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