The charming tenement houses in Kraków are an intriguing testimony to the extremely rich history of this city. There are over 10 000 of them here, concentrated around the market square and along the nearby streets. They still hide many secrets, being a source of legends and extraordinary stories.
“History cannot be confined to museums”, wrote Katarzyna Byrska, an expert on Kraków architecture in the “Młoda Muzeologia” (Young museology) magazine, pointing out that it is in Kraków that history can be literally touched while walking along the streets with beautiful, historic tenement houses sitting next to one another. The oldest ones were built in the Middle Ages as houses for craftsmen and merchants, as well as seats of noble families. Most of the buildings were erected around the market square, which was the city centre – where the city authorities had their seat, as well as trade, various services for the public and social life were concentrated. Even though centuries have passed since then, the Main Square still remains the heart of Kraków.
With the times
Architecture does not like to be left behind and often old buildings are modernized, rebuilt and decorated to meet the modern expectations. The same applies to tenement houses in Kraków. Initially, they were narrow (adjusted to the size of city plots), one-story high, with deep arcades, and constituted the central point of the professional life of the owners, where workshops, warehouses and merchant stalls were located. The first floors housed living quarters, whereas attics was occupied by journeymen and poorer citizens of Kraków. With time, the appearance of the tenement houses changed significantly, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they became the seats of noble families. German and Italian architects dealt with their reconstruction, forgoing the arcades and decorating the facades with patterns of multicolour bricks. Doors, windows and gates were placed in carved stone frames, with coats of arms placed above them, while the gables and recesses were decorated with images of saints. The beauty of this architecture resulted the tenement houses of the Old Town being entered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978.
Presbytery of St. Cross Church, ul. Świętego Krzyża 23.
Although very interesting, the oldest residential building in Kraków can hardly be considered a typical tenement house. It was built around 1300 in the early Gothic style. It then became part of the city fortifications and served a defensive purpose. The evidence of its former function are, among others, small, narrow, irregularly placed windows. In the second half of the 14th century, the building became the property of the Benedictine monastery, for whom it served for centuries. It was only in 1827 that it was assigned to the presbytery, and had a spacious garden built next to it. Interestingly, this building has been getting … lower and lower over the centuries! Of course, only apparently. For years, the inhabitants of Kraków added various materials to the nearby road to cover the muddy puddles and level the road. It is estimated that the route leading by the tenement house rose in this way from six to even eight meters!
Hetman’s Tenement House, Main Square 17.
The building, slightly younger than the presbytery, also known as the old mint, was erected in the mid-14th century, when the extraordinary gothic hall with a cross vault and rich sculptural decorations was built. Originally, the building was to be the property of the rulers, as it is believed that it served as the royal city residence. It is known for certain that the official coin had been minted there for some time. In turn, the building got its name thanks to one of the owners, Jan Klemens Branicki of the Gryf coat of arms, the Grand Hetman of the Crown. In the second half of the 20th century, during one of the renovations, the attic was reconstructed, and now features the magnificent coat of arms of the Branicki family.
Turkish house, ul. Długa 31.
The impressive building from the second half of the 19th century originally had only two floors, but in 1910 it was rebuilt according to the design of the architect Henryk Lamensdorf from Kraków. It was commenced at the request of Artur Teodor Rayski of the Korab coat of arms – an officer of the Ottoman army in Turkey and a participant in the January Uprising. There were numerous rumours floating around the owner. It is said that he brought a muezzin from Egypt to the Turkish House, who called him to pray every day with his singing. It was also said that he had a second wife, a Muslim. True or not, the Turkish House is adorned with a perfectly visible turret, vividly resembling a minaret, with a gallery and a conical dome topped with a crescent.
The Singing Frog Tenement, ul. Retoryka 1.
The author of this unusual building was called “Galician Gaudi”. Teodor Talowski was an extremely prolific artist and is considered one of the most important architects of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Where did the original name of the facility come from? At the time when it was built, the Rudawa River, the left tributary of the Vistula River, was flowing nearby. The frog croak perfectly resonated in the neighbourhood. This is evidenced by the sculpture of a frog singing and playing the mandolin. It used to crown a tenement house, however after another storey was added, the figure of the musical amphibian was placed in the dormer on the third floor. Attentive observers will notice a staff with musical notation below the sculpture – it is said that it is a fragment of an old Polish song “A girl with lips like a raspberry”.
The Spider Tenement, ul. Karmelicka 35.
When remembering Teodor Talowski, it is not right to ignore his next tenement house: Pod Pająkiem (Spider tenement). The architect designed this extremely beautiful corner building in 1889 for the needs of his family. The tenement owes its unusual name to its original decoration – there is a round opening in the attic and an openwork web with a huge copper spider in the middle. However, more animal symbols can be found there – careful observers will also spot a winged dragon, an owl, a peacock or a turkey.
More and more…
Fans of Talowski’s architecture should definitely see such objects as Pod Osłem (The donkey tenement), Pod Smokiem (The dragon tenement), Pod Pająkiem (The spider tenement), or Festina Lente. The latter, like Pod Pająkiem, was the home of this extraordinary artist. It is certainly also worth visiting the four-story Ohrenstein House designed by Jan Zawiejski, often compared to the most beautiful buildings in Vienna, Kamienica Margrabska, where Tadeusz Kościuszko stayed overnight in 1792, or the own house of the architect Sławomir Odrzywolski of the Nałęcz coat of arms at ul. Studencka 19, where attention is drawn to the beautifully restored sgraffito on the facade.
Look for signs
The tenement houses were numbered by the Austrians in the second half of the 19th century. Previously, houses were recognized by their characteristics, inscriptions and heraldic badges. The heraldic badges were figures of saints, human heads, trees, stars, animals and fantastic creatures. Some of these representations were related to the profession of the owner, while the meaning of others is difficult to guess today. Relatively few heraldic badges have survived to our times. The oldest of them is the image of a lion from 1432 in the Podelwie tenement house at ul. Grodzka 32. Moreover, stone lizards (Main Square 8) and a lamb (ul. Szewska 7) also have a Middle Age provenience. In the 16th, 17th, and especially the 18th century, tenement houses were eagerly rebuilt, with the old heraldic badges being replaced with newer ones. Moreover, noble families eagerly placed their coats of arms on the facades or chose elements of coats of arms (e.g. an animal) as the heraldic badge of the house. When visiting Kraków with children, it may be a good idea to look for tenement houses with different images of animals. They are located in close proximity to each other, so it is easy to plan an attractive hiking or biking trip.