New Old Town

Like many cities in Central Europe, Warsaw is made up largely of grey, ugly, communist block-style architecture. Except for one part:  The Old Town.

Credit: Andy Wright

Walking through the historic district, it’s just like any other quaint European city. There are tourist shops, horse-drawn carriage rides, church spires. The buildings are beautiful—but they are not original.


During World War II, German forces razed more than 80% of Warsaw. After Soviet troops took over, much of the city was rebuilt in the with communist style: fast, cheap, and big. They built apartment blocks, wide avenues, and heavy grey buildings. It was communist ideology in architectural form.

But when it came to the historic district of Warsaw — the Old Town and a long connecting section called the Royal Route — they decided not just to rebuilt, but to restore. Builders would use the same stones, and use special kilns to make special bricks to preserve its authenticity. After six years of reconstruction, the new Old Town was opened. Poles were ecstatic to have it back. Even in the West, it was seen as a triumph of the human spirit.

But here’s the thing: Warsaw’s historic Old Town is not a replica of the original. It’s a re-imagining. An historic city that never really was.

Look closely.

From left: Warsaw’s Old Town Square in 1913; in 1945; and in 2009

Not long after the Old Town was rebuilt, people started to notice that it was a little bit off. People wandered around and  feeling this uncanny disjuncture between the city that they remembered and the city in which they now found themselves.

From left: Nowy Swiat (“New World”) Street, c. 1915-1918; in 2009

Despite the push for authenticity, it turned out that the major inspiration for the rebuilding of the city were the paintings of an 18th Century Italian artist named Bernardo Bellotto.  Bellotto was a “vedutista,” one who  specialized in the Venetian style of painting in which cityscapes are depicted realistically, with their details and documented precisely.

“Dluga Street,” Bernardo Bellotto, 1778

But Bellotto had a tendency to make “improvements” on the cities he painted, relying as much on his artistic license as what he actually observed. The paintings from the 18th Century were never meant to match reality — they were supposed to be better than reality.

From left: John’s House on Castle Square in the 1920s; John’s House as depicted by Bellotto, c. 1768; John’s House After the 1948 reconstruction

For the Soviets, this reconfiguration of the Old Town served two purposes. First, they wanted to send the message that the Old Town — and Warsaw as a whole — would be better than it was before the war. Second, they didn’t want Poles to long for this lost part of the city. By recreating Old Town, the past could stop being such a distraction, and they could get to work on a drastic overhaul of the country.

Credit: Emily Heath

Today, placards with Bellotto’s paintings stand beside buildings, inviting passers-by to marvel at their likeness.

Our story this week was reported by Amy Drozdowska and Dave McGuire, who spoke with Warsaw-born anthropologist Michał Murawski about Warsaw’s complicated history.


This week’s episode is sponsored in part by Sidewalk Radio with Gene Kansas, which covers the art, architecture, design and urban planning of Atlanta, GA and beyond.

Comments (5)


  1. Any reading recommendations for someone who wants to dig deeper and read more about the city and its history? (Academic monographs welcomed over travel guides!)

  2. adam

    I don’t agree with what is written here about the old town. Aside from St. John’s and the uncovering of earlier gothic components of some buildings, most buildings were a faithful reconstruction even using recycled bricks. And there are about 10 buildings in the old town that are virtually authentic inside and out. Murals or frescoes in more cases were new accurate pre-war documentation was hard to come by.

  3. adam

    and I should add all of the gothic basements are original, merely reinforced in some cases. almost all of the basements were preserved as was the original building footprint, medieval street pattern and even silhouette. Yes in cases as on Nowy Swiat street, some buildings were not rebuilt favouring the original 18th century look of the street and on these streets people may not have recognized some stretches. Further along Krakowskie Przedmiescie the same treatment was applied, but almost all of the churches are original having survived virtually intact.

  4. Let me start by saying that 99% Invisible is my favorite podcast ever, and I really love every story you do, including this one. In fact, I listened to this podcast when it originally came out over 2 years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. Fast forward to now, I am about to start my masters in Historic Preservation and I have been reading James Marston Fitch’s “Curatorial Management of the Built World.” In the last chapter he discusses the reconstruction of Warsaw after WWII. He explains that during the restoration and reconstruction, the Polish conservationists had to decide to what stage of history each structure should be “returned.” Using John’s Cathedral (not to be confused with John’s house, above) as an example, Fitch explains that the conservationists deliberately decided against restoring the gothic facade, and instead choose to restore the building to an earlier state with the stepped gable as depicted in Bernardo Belotto’s paintings. To determine their accuracy, Belotto’s paintings were compared with the extensive catalogue of measured drawings that the architecture students at the polytechnic were required to make of the old buildings in the Stare Miasto (it appears that they had an abundance of accurate pre-war documentation). Fortunately, most of the drawings survived the war and they were used in conjunction with the painting of Bernardo Belotto to provide the basis of restoration and reconstruction in Warsaw. Anyways, I hope this only adds to the interesting history of Warsaw.

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