Zygmunt Gnatowski as builder of the Koliba-House

from "Die Gnatowskis. Die Geschichte einer masowischen Familie" by Alfred von der Lehr
ISBN-Nr: 3-00-005311-5


As already mentioned, we know little of Zygmunt Gnatowski's life. He is known mostly as the builder of the Koliba house. It's as if he became part of the history just through the construction of this house. Even his birth year 1854 is uncertain because in all the documents there is always a question mark behind it. He was however owner of the property of Jakimowka, before it became his brother Pawel's.

While Pawel remained however in the Ukraine and after Zygmunt's death his energy was put into the development of the family estate Jakimowka - perhaps already before Zygmunt's death he was its manager - Zygmunt's heart became more and more attached to his "summer residence" in the Tatra.

In the end the originally planned summer hut became a regular summer residence. Really, Zygmunt has evolved into a patron of the whole area, he invested not only in his own property, but has also sent peasant's sons to school so they could learn different manual skills and thus could contribute to the development of the community.

Documents concerning these different aspects of Zygmunt Gnatowski's life can still be found at the archive in Zakopane, which we show here with friendly permission of the institute administration.1)

In the documents, it simply reads: "Information about the childhood, teen-years and education of Gnatowski is lacking. The oldest source of information available about him are personally by Walery Eliasz made notices on the edge of a "New illustrated Guide of Tatra and the Pieniny Mountains", made probably during their tours in the Tatra. On the basis of these notes it is assumed that Gnatowski visited Zakopane in the year 1883 for the first time and participated in a six-day trip, organized by Tytus Chalubinski into the Tatra. In the trip also the legendary Sabala participated."

Therefore Zygmunt Gnatowski rather coincidentally discovered Zakopane, when he participated in a kind of study trip. Further the notes say: "Further sojourns followed in the years 1885, 1886, 1887. It is also known that in the nineties he visited Zakopane every year, mostly to improve his health and as time went by, so to Gnatowski's fascination for the Tatra mountains, the highland population and their culture - a source for his collector's passion and increasing engagement in the regional concerns."

Soon the Ukrainian landowner felt the healthy power coming from the mountains, their climate and the people. He seems to have felt very much at home in this land and between those people. However, Zakopane was still a place of "summer freshness", which he visited from time to time.

"In June 1889 he became a regular member of the Tatra-museum-society and that's probably the moment when he started amassing his collection and planning his summer house. Fate decided it when in June 1890 Stanislaw Witkiewicz and his family established themselves permanently in Zakopane.

One year later began his employment for the preservation of the Zakopane style. The exact circumstances, which made Gnatowski abandon his plans of building a peasant's house in favour of the house in Zakopane style, are not known. Through this decision he became the first patron of Witkiewicz's idea and till the end of his days its greatest follower."

By chance two related spirits met here and Witkiewicz had no difficulty inspiring Zygmunt Gnatowski with enthusiasm for his ideas: "'Koliba' - the first house in "the Zakopane-style" - was built and furnished in the years 1892 - 94."

See Koliba House Photos - First and second building phase

The house seems to have immediately become a great success. "In Gnatowski's lifetime many famous personalities have visited this house: among others Henryk Rodakowski, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Tadeusz Stryjenski, Jozef Chelmonski, Helena Modrzejewska, Adam Chmielowski and Jan Kasprowicz". Aside of the literary Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz (a. o. Quo Vadis) they were known Polish artists: Henryk Rodakowski was an artist and one of the most famous portrait painters, Tadeusz Stryjenski was an architect, a. o. in 1874 -1877 the state architect in Lima. As one of the first, he used ferroconcrete. Jozef Chelmonski was also an artist and as such an exponent of Realism, Helena Modrzejewska was an actress and counted at her time as one of the best Polish tragic actresses and was known worldwide. Adam Chmielowski was a painter, friar and participant of the January uprising, Jan Kasprowicz was a poet.

Zygmunt caught fire: "Gnatowski is known as founder of one more important implementation of the Zakopane-style, the John the Baptist Chapel constructed according to Witkiewicz's concepts in the new church in Zakopane. He has also designed furniture of this style and a series of small items for the "Koliba house" and even a barn shed with a parlour, unfortunately not preserved, next to the Koliba house."

Zygmunt Gnatowski must have invested great amounts of money here, he became not only a patron in of the architecture, but he also became benefactor for the community and its economy and social development. "Behind all Gnatowski's activities there was always social consideration in the background," continues the report. "As initiator of many campaigns in Zakopane, he has, for example, in 1900, paid for furrier apprenticeship of Stanislaw Batka and Stanislaw Roj, the objective of which was to make this branch of industry more popular in Zakopane. In June 1900 he was chosen Head of the Committee for the construction of Dr. Tytus Chalubinski monument and thanks to his efforts the uncovering of the monument was on August 15th 1901. Gnatowski was also head member of the Association for the Adornment of Zakopane and co-worker of the Association Friends of Zakopane, which met, among others, in the Koliba house. During that time Zakopane must have developed, thanks to the tireless work of Zygmunt Gnatowski, into a place we today call, according to American mountain holiday villages, resorts. A mostly wealthy upper class has created a recreation resort with alpine-style charm and comfort.

Fine handicraft in the local style met the taste of these clients and, at the same time, made showing the fortune possible. This art of "development" was still far away from the "mass tourism" of today and thus could the "Gorale", the local highland peasants, keep their identity and dignity.

Zygmunt Gnatowski found this place, these people and his life in the unspoiled mountain land more and more likable. This could be a result of the surroundings, the climate and also of the task he undertook. Anyway Zygmunt considered staying permanently in the home of his choice: "Gnatowski, still Russian subject, took arrangements in 1901 to receive Austrian citizenship. Most likely because of his worsening state of health he intended to always establish himself in Zakopane for which he also received the permission of the local council.

The "Zakopane-Show" of 7 March 1901 reported: "Zygmunt Gnatowski's application to become citizen of the municipality Zakopane, needed to receive Austrian citizenship, deserves special interest. Kulig, member of the municipality council declares, considering the merits of Gnatowski, his approval "with open arms". He also suggests that the taxes should not be mentioned in the answer to the application (according to the law the municipality council is authorised to charge 1000 crones for the registration as a citizen) and that the answer - delegation of 6 members of the municipality council - should be announced to Mr. Gnatowski. Mr Pawlica suggests accepting this resolution without discussion, which is supported by director Walczak and the priest. The consent is accepted unanimously and the priest suggests that only Gorale should be members of the delegation: Jacina, Maciej Gasiennica, W. Roj, Slimak, Sobczak and Jan Krzeptowski.2)" This procedure reminds a little of the relocation of prominent and wealthy citizens of Swiss Cantons.

Anyway, Zygmunt continues investing all his power into this village: "In the years 1904 - 1906, Gnatowski held the office of the chairman of the Tatra-museum-society and manages the renovation work on in the Museum building: "... Although ill and without necessary power for these exertions, he came along very well with the workers, he supervised their work and in finally sorted himself the ethnographic collection. In addition, he passionately recruited and won, during a stay in its homeland, a considerable crowd of new members in this affair, thus helping to reinforce the association's modest account..."

Zygmunt's state of health got worse: "Gnatowski's health got obviously worse in 1905. He travelled to his homeland, Jakimowka. In May 1906, following letter reached the Museum:

"Dear and much valued Sir,

As I'm not writing myself, and only dictating these few words, you will have no problem guessing that the state of my health is not very good.

After half a year of bed confinement in Kiev - the doctors are planned on sending me to Montreux into Switzerland in the spring, but after a discussion with doctor Kruszynski, who visited me in Kiev, agreed that my actual condition would not allow making such a long journey - opted for Slawuty, where I am now - I take the opportunity to enclose 64 rubles, which I collected as contributions for the museum from persons specified below."

And further a memo:

"My brother dictated this letter during my absence, but to sign it could not do it no more, he could not sign it because his condition got worse so that there is little chance for him and I don't know if he will live long enough to see tomorrow.

This I wanted to communicate to you.

With my best regards to you,

Pawel Gnatowski."

Zygmunt Gnatowski died on 6 June 1906 in Jakimowka. His last will contained a generous entry for the benefit of the Tatra-museum-society, covering a priceless ethnographic collection, a library with precious archival files and a photo collection, as well as 10,000 crowns as a fund for the construction of a brick building for the Museum. 3)"

So far the report, which is in the documents of the museum. Pawel Gnatowski also sent a telegram advising the Gorale of the death of their patron and sponsor:


"Zygmunt died, Funeral Jakimowka, Monday, Please inform Jarniczkiewicz, Osiecimska and other sympathisers - Pawel Gnatowski"4)

As we know, the Zakopane-style hasn't spread all around Poland and even the fondness in Zakopane itself seems to have gradually faded.

Zygmunt's death marks the beginning of a long decline for the Koliba house and the Museum, which could only be stopped just a short time ago. Today the house is restored and offers a very good insight into Zygmunt Gnatowski's taste and into the past of Zakopane.

1) Archivals: Gnatowskis notes at the edge and on the back of the designs in "The new Illustrated guide of the Tatra and Pieniny Mountains", author Walery Eliasz, from the year 1881; Documents of the Tatra-Museum from the years 1888 - 1912; The minutes book of the Tatra-museum.

2) See also: Jablonska, page 76

3) See. Jablonska, page 81

4) Aus Slawuta an Kronhelm/Skoczyska, Telegramm (Nr. 223). Vgl. auch: Jablonska, page. 81.