Polish Home’s New World
March 23, 2017
Photos by (Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant)
Revolution is underway on Charter Oak Avenue, powered, in part, by pierogies and kielbasa.
For nearly 90 years, the Polish National Home has served those Eastern European delicacies with a side of history, establishing a haven where Poles can find camaraderie in northern Connecticut.
It was a winning formula in the 1930s when the social club’s Art Deco facade was raised in the shadow of the Capewell Horse Nail Company. But the factory shuttered, and the Polish enclave it served slowly spread into the suburbs.
Still, the National Home hung on, amid a fluctuating membership and a rapidly aging building.
“The torch got handed down,” says Rob Kwasnicki, the president of the Polish National Home of Hartford, about growing up down the street from the Hartford landmark and social club on Charter Oak Avenue in the city. Kwasnicki has plans for ongoing renovations and overhauls to the facility as well as changes and additions in programming designed to boost membership. Kwasnicki said the efforts are being made to keep the 85-year-old social club alive and help it evolve to match the changing demographics of Hartford. (Photo -Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant)
Now, that decline has been reversed by a new class of leadership who see a chance to leverage what was once a Slavic stronghold into a engine of progress in its surrounding neighborhood, and, by extension, the city. “We have an opportunity for the Polish National Home to be what it has always been: an anchor in the community,” Rob Kwasnicki, president of the home’s board, said. “We can be a focal point, a gathering place, a beacon or central point of informational disbursement.” Two years ago, Kwasnicki was recruited to join the national home’s board. The interest wasn’t rooted in the fact that his father was once a security guard at the club, or manned a post at the Capewell factory when it first opened. Though the relation certainly helped, he admitted. It was his background in marketing, he said, that convinced his predecessor to enlist his help with “dramatic operational changes. We waited too late to adjust to the realities that the Polish population in Hartford is not what it used to be,” Kwasnicki said. “So we had to shift gears and be more proactive in recruiting, finding new members to enjoy our club but also remain loyal to the Polish heritage, food and spirits.” It’s a difficult balance for Kwasnicki to strike, but he’s not working alone. “The place was built tough by a tough people, and we want to make sure it’s here for the future generations to support,” said Mark Bruks, the national home’s treasurer. “We’re not only going to relive what we’ve had in the past here, but we’re going to make something new.” The national home is in Bruks’ blood. His father was an active member, and he remembers many long afternoons spent darting around the club’s packed dining room as a kid. He constantly encounters people with similar memories, but people who only peripherally remember the national home, who only see it as a relic of a time long past.
“Look, Hartford itself has been through its up and downs,” Bruks said. “But there’s this revitalization effort throughout the city, and we’re part of that.” To start, the board opened membership up to non-Poles as “social members.” And they commissioned fundraisers to spruce up the spaces where the new members would congregate: the bar, dining area and Chopin Ballroom. Even the menu got an update. Salads and lighter fare were added, and the national home’s bar started stocking craft beers, including bottles from local brewers. Once the facelifts were complete, the board filled the national home’s calendar with new programming. Beer, vodka and wine tastings. Practices by the Hartford Underground swing dancing group. Networking breakfasts for Startup Hartford and other business groups.
When Luke Bronin won the mayoral primary in September 2015, he packed the national home’s ballroom with supporters, took the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” and pledged his service to the Capital City. Membership now hovers around 1,000, Kwasnicki said. He expects it to double by this time next year, thanks to a little help from his new neighbors.
In February, Bronin and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy cut the ribbon on the Capewell Lofts, luxury apartments built into the skeleton of the former horse nail factory. Each lease in the building, developed by CIL, comes with an automatic one-year social membership to the national home, according to Kent Schwendy, CIL’s president. Schwendy said the idea grew naturally out of the buildings’ proximity. In fact, the national home was a constant fixture during construction, whether as a caterer for planning meetings or to provide a little extra parking for contractors. But most importantly, Kwasnicki and his board’s philosophy of revitalization and rebirth lined up with CIL’s, Schwendy said.