History of the building

The seat of the museum – a tenement house at 16 Freta Street

The tenement house, which is the seat of the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw, was established in the 18th century as a result of the transformation of two other buildings, with the unification of the facade. The reconstruction was made circa 1791 upon request of the banker, Maciej Łyszkiewicz, according to the design of Szymon Bogumił Zug, the architect, giving the facade the character of a classicist street palace. What was erected at the back of the tenement house were, among others, two two-story outbuildings.

Freta Street in Warsaw. The first tenement house from the left at 16 Freta Street, with a pharmacy sign on the ground floor. Photograph by Maurycy Pusch, circa 1895. From the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw
The unveiling of the commemorative plaque at 16 Freta Street, 29 May 1932. From the collection of the MMSC

From 1848, the building was the seat of a widely appreciated boarding school for girls, run by Eleonora Kurhanowicz, and from 1859 by a graduate of the school – Bronisława Boguska, Maria’s mother, who took the surname Skłodowska after her husband in 1860.

Until they moved to Nowolipki Street in 1868, the Skłodowski family and their children probably lived in an outbuilding in the back of the yard. The facade of the building at that time was similar to the present one; the main difference was the gate leading to the entrance.

The owner of the building in those years (1858–1874) was Wilhelm Gerlach, an industrialist, founder of the famous Warsaw machine factory, then operating as Gerlach and Pulst. On the ground floor of the tenement house, there was, for instance, Karol Masson’s soap factory. Even under the ownership of W. Gerlach, there was also the Stanisław Tugut Successors Pharmacy there, where medicines were sold and manufactured.

The Pharmacy of Gąsecki – purchased in 1919, a pharmacist from Płock, the creator of the original recipe for the painkiller Migreno-Nervosin (the famous “rooster”), later registered in 46 countries around the world, will allude to this tradition. The company named Adolf Gąsecki and Son, Pharmacy and Chemical and Pharmaceutical Laboratory with its seat at 16 Freta Street, which was run in later years, will give rise to the impressive empire of Gąsecki and his sons. During the Warsaw Uprising, there will be a pharmacy operating at Freta Street, although not run by Adolf Gąsecki anymore, providing aid to the fighting ones.

In 1909, when the building was owned by Jakub Fiszhaut, the two-story tenement house was extended to five stories. The changes resulted in the blurring of the earlier style features, that had been giving the building a unique character. The tenement house was in the hands of the Fiszhaut family when on 29 May 1932, on the opening day of the Radium Institute founded by Maria Skłodowska-Curie in Warsaw, a plaque commemorating the birth and discoveries of the Nobel Prize Winner was unveiled on the front wall of the building.

The plaque survived a construction disaster that took place on 31 July 1935 as a result of twentieth-century architectural changes. The collapse of the tenement house wall caused the death of five people and injury to sixteen.

Rebuilt, the building was damaged during World War II. On 26 August 1944, as a result of the bombing of the tenement house, about 100 people were killed as assumed, including almost all members of the headquarters of the People’s Army in the Warsaw Uprising. The list of the deceased under the rubble included but was not limited to the People’s Army commander of the Warsaw City District, the People’s Army commander in the Warsaw Uprising, Colonel Bolesław Kowalski “Ryszard” and the Chief of Staff of the People’s Army command, Major Edward Lanota “Edward”.

The damage to the building was so severe that after its rubble was removed in 1946, the front wall was pulled down to a height of 1 floor. The remains of the 18th century building are today’s basement walls and foundations. During the reconstruction of Freta Street in 1950–1954, the back outbuildings were razed to the ground, replacing them with lawns and squares.

Helena Skłodowska-Szalay, sister of the Nobel Prize Winner, in front of a dilapidated house at 16 Freta Street. The photo shows the gate leading to the yard where the outbuildings were located. From the collection of the MMSC

The present shape of the tenement house, similar to its original from the 18th century, is the result of the reconstruction carried out in 1951–1954 under the supervision of architects Stanisława and Jerzy Dutkiewicz. It was based on iconographic sources from before the twentieth-century superstructure. The facade was reconstructed according to the condition from the end of the 18th century; however, the passage gate was removed, and some minor simplifications were introduced.

The rebuilt building fulfilled various functions, including but not limited to, it was provided to satisfy the needs of the Polish Teachers’ Union. On 7 October 1954, during the session held in Warsaw on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the death of Maria Skłodowska-Curie, the Maria Skłodowska Scientist House was opened in the tenement house at 16 Freta Street, where an exhibition devoted to the scientist was organised. This place was important on the map of post-war Polish oriental studies because it served as the seat of the Committee of Oriental Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Polish Society of Oriental Studies, the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the editorial office of Przegląd Orientalistyczny. The building was also the seat of the Polish Biochemical Society and the Polish Chemical Society, which made efforts to establish a museum for the Nobel Prize Winner. It was ceremoniously opened in the jubilee of 1967 at the birthplace of Maria Skłodowska-Curie, where it is still in operation.

by Dominika Korzeniowska, PhD