Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mystery Solved: The Four Men on White Eagle Hall

The news of the White Eagle Hall transformation into a Performing Arts Center has excited the neighborhood as well as the region. I blogged about that announcement here and as promised, this follow-up blog features some of the history I’ve gathered on this extraordinary building. 

 More importantly, a mystery has been solved. Before we turn the page on this new chapter of the downtown Jersey City saga, let me first reveal the identities of the four busts adorning the building.
These men, at least their cement likenesses, have been looking out on Newark Avenue since 1910 and no records survive stating who they are, and nobody knows who they are.

Their identities were unknown… until now….

To truly grasp the significance of their identity, and how who they are turn this urban brick structure into a culturally unique building, some context is needed. To provide that context, let’s explore the scant information that is available.
For generations – most of the 20th century in fact – of Jersey City and Hudson County residents, White Eagle Hall was where large community gatherings were held, mainly school graduations and sporting events. Probably the best known occupant of the hall was Bob Hurley, head basketball coach for 30+ years for the Saint Anthony Friars. Hurley’s teams won 23 state championships, a national record. White Eagle Hall was the home court for these legendary teams, the wood panels and floor markings are still intact and rumor is, the last time the building was used before the present closure was for a 2006 basketball game that Hurley organized. White Eagle Hall was also renowned for its weekly bingo games, the sign for which still hangs on the façade.
But the roots of this building sprout from one of the transformative periods of American history. White Eagle Hall is emblematic of the early 20th century Polish community, one of the several European groups struggling to survive in the melting pot of the American dream.

Father Peter Boleslaus Kwiatowski built and named the hall. He was one of the important Polish-American leaders of the Ellis Island Era, the name given to the peak of European immigration to the United States, which ranges roughly from 1892, when the Ellis Island complex opened, to 1924, when laws restricting European immigration were first enacted.

In 1910 though, immigration was rapidly redefining the U.S. – “The peak year of European immigration was in 1907, when 1,285,349 persons entered the country. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were living in the United States” (according to Wikipedia). At the same time, the backlash against immigrants was also on the rise – the Klu Klux Klan, which had a revival as segregation laws became widespread south of the Mason Dixon Line following the Plessey ruling allowing Jim Crow, by the end of the 19th century had widened their hate and political reach. They had adapted nativist prejudices and anti-immigration politics into their terroristic activities. Chapters of the KKK had also sprung up in northern states, including New Jersey, fomenting bigotry in the region, traces of which can still be felt.

Immigrants were growing in population, but anti-immigrant – and anti-Catholic (down with Popery!) forces, a significant faction in the U.S. since colonial times, were also gaining new adherent. There were clashes between immigrants and native-borns, between city (were most immigrants, at least initially, lived) versus rural dwellers, as well as between the different groups of immigrants. If it wasn’t for generations of prejudice and apartheid laws against African Americans, as well as Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Mexican Americans – the newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe (prior to the Ellis Island Era, most European immigrants were from Northern Europe) would be clearly on the bottom rung of the Economic ladder. The length of the distance separating these two lowest rungs historians (and descendants) still debate.

Father Kwiatowski, after being driven out of his native Poland by Russian occupiers, became the Johnny Appleseed of Polish Catholic churches in New Jersey, responsible for what seems to be half a dozen parishes in Hudson and Essex Counties. Father Kwiatowski was ordained in 1888, “he was stationed as curate in several Polish towns, and in 1890, when he was deemed sufficiently experienced to be given a pastorate, and he was banned by the Russian government…. Because of the power wielded by the Russian government in Poland, Father Kwiatowski was forced to flee to America, where he as befriended by Father Wladsawl Kukuoski, then Pastor of St. Anthony’s …” according to his obituary, Jersey Journal 4/14/1934.

Saint Anthony’s church – home of the I love Saint Anthony’s Festival – was founded in 1884 (although records show the church itself was completed in 1892, so the exact chronology is fuzzy) and is considered to be the oldest Polish Catholic church in the state of New Jersey.

From the Jersey Journal obituary: “[Kwiatowski] established polish churches in the surrounding territories among them Our Lady of Czestochowa on Sussex St., and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bayonne, the largest Polish Catholic church in diocese of Newark….Father Kwiatwoski established Polish churches in Harrison and Paterson… he established other Polish Catholic churches in Elizabeth, Linden and Irvington.”
Along the way – in 1910 – he built the White Eagle Hall, before becoming pastor at Saint Anthony, where he was responsible for doubling the size of the church, establishing a grammar and high school, a convent and an “orphan’s asylum.”

I’m unclear as to the exact year – the Photostat of the article in the Jersey Room of the Main Branch of the Jersey City Public Library does not have a date – but on his birthday (he died at age 71 in 1934) – sometime before then but after 1910, Father Kwiatowski gave White Eagle Hall to Saint Anthony’s. “Poles of Jersey City to Have Building,” one of the sub-heads declares.

Apparently, Father Kwiotwaski “owned” White Eagle Hall, implying that he bought the original land and funded construction. Did he raise funds, or was he able to fund the project with his own wealth – in European aristocratic families, often the youngest son entered the clergy, where they held leadership positions, appointments often the result of their wealth and family connections. Russian occupiers would be very interested in breaking up any existing Polish power structures, such as aristocratic family networks or Roman Catholic dioceses (there was and is a schism between Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodox Catholicism).

After leaving his homeland, he devoted his life his flock, Polish Americans in New Jersey (especially Jersey City!). Along with his busy pastoral life, running multiple parishes, which sounds exhausting, he found time to also build a secular building.
Parishes back then not only had larger congregations, but ran schools and other institutions. Tens of thousands of poles, fleeing the Russians as well as poverty, were coming to New Jersey. The only social institution familiar to them was the Catholic Church. “Another thing he helped do was break up the clannishness which existed in the Parish… under his thirteen years’ rule his congregation has grown from a few hundred to more than 1,000…” says the Jersey Journal article on the doubling of the size of the church under his tenure.

Prior to ceding ownership of White Eagle Hall to Saint Anthony’s, the building seems to be the singular secular project of Father Kwiotwaski hectic and likely complicated life in the Garden State. During the height of the Ellis Island Era, in a Protestant-dominated nation not always so accommodating to the growing influx of foreign born Catholics – Father Kwiotwaski saw the need for a secular building to augment his evangelization efforts.

Now, why the building was eventually given to the church, whether this was always the plan or maybe since he was an administrator at the church already, consolidating management just made operational sense, I have not been able to ascertain. How successful, or profitable, White Eagle Hall was or had to be to remain independent, I do not know.

But the real question that nags me is how was a priest able to afford a building in the first place?

Who came up with the idea of the four men on the side of the building is likewise currently lost to the official account, although apparently this façade is the only grouping of these four Polish luminaries known to exist. I have seen no evidence to dispute that statement. The heads are most likely made of cement, by the looks of them, as opposed to having been carved out of stone, indicating that some form of cast was used. Are there other variations of these same likenesses somewhere that used the same original molds?
Bottom line: the heads are unique, the grouping of them to make a clever statement, is unique, which of course adds to the uniqueness of a secular building constructed by a refugee Priest.

Who else, besides Father Kwiotwaski, was involved with the planning of the building, I also have not been able to find out, and probably the motivations of his collaborators are where many answers reside.

My theory is that along with taking care of polish souls, Kwiotwaski saw the need to instill a sense of pride within his own immigrant community – who for lack of a better term, were ‘competing’ with other swelling immigrant populations, such as the Italians (whose Holy Rosary Church – the oldest Italian Parish in New Jersey – is located on the same block as Saint Anthony). In doing so, the good priest might have also realized that the community had to make this statement visible to the community at large, that the Polish immigrants had roots in the founding of the United States and their culture had a great deal to contribute to Western Civilization in general and American Culture specifically. Coinciding with the massive wave of Eastern European immigrants was the industrial revolution, which was quickly gaining momentum. Thousands of workers of polish descent had joined the ranks of factory and construction labor forces, settling in cities throughout the country to raise families. By 1910, this first generation of American-Poles had acquired enough economic wealth to support a public assembly hall that also enshrined Polish accomplishments.

Thus the significance who the four heads of Newark Avenue are.

But first, why White Eagle?


Well, the White Eagle has been the Polish symbol since the dark ages. The legend goes that in Pre-Christendom, Lech, Čech, and Rus, were the three brothers – Lech, Čech (or Czech), and Rus – who founded three Slavic nations: Lechia (Poland), Czechia (Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia; thus modern Czech Republic), and Ruthenia (Rus', modern Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine). Lech decided to settle in Poland when he found a nest of White Eagles. Wikipedia: “When he looked at the bird, a ray of sunshine from the red setting sun fell on its wings, so they appeared tipped with gold, the rest of the eagle was pure white.” The oldest use of the White Eagle to distinguish Poles as a distinct Slavic people dates to 992 AE (again Wikipedia).


So, who are the White Eagle Hall of the Newark Avenue White Eagle Hall guys?

Worthy descendants of Lech: Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Casimir Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Say what who now?
The skyway dude sounds familiar but who was he and who are them other guys.
Ignacy Jan Paderewski

In 1910, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, was a world-famous pianist and composer. He toured the United States extensively, had hit classical songs (sheet music) and was reportedly quite popular with the women. He gained massive amounts of wealth, even owned land in the U.S., including a vineyard where he was one of the first vintners of Zinfandel (the company apparently still exists) in America. Soon after the construction of White Eagle Hall, he became a politician, eventually becoming prime minister and foreign minister of Poland in 1919, and represented Poland the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Wiki: “He played an important role in meeting with President Woodrow Wilson and others in obtaining the explicit inclusion of independent Poland as point 13 in Wilson's peace terms, the Fourteen Points.” His career continued to bounce back and forth between music and politics, until his death in 1941 (where he was active in helping Polish refugees from the Nazi occupation). In 1910 then, his political career still lay ahead – but he was probably the most recognizable polish celebrity of the time.

Wiki: “There are streets and schools named after Paderewski in many major cities in Poland. There are also streets named after him in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York. In addition, the Academy of Music in Poznań is named after him. Paderewski has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, awarded in 1960.”
Casimir Pulaski

Casimir Pulaski – yes the skyway connecting Jersey City to Newark is named after him – was a a Polish nobleman, soldier and military commander who has been called "the father of American cavalry.” After unsuccessfully fighting against Russian domination, by 1775, he sought refuge in France, and was soon recruited by the Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin (whom he met in spring 1777) for service in the American War of Independence. Franklin: "Count Pulaski of Poland, an officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country against the three great invading powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia ... may be highly useful to our service”

 Pulaski wrote to Washington, "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it."

As a result, on September 15, 1777, Washington, on the orders of Congress, gave Pulaski a commission as Brigadier General of the American cavalry, essentially forming the first Calvary divisions of the United States. He was alongside Washington at Valley Forge and towards the end of the war, at the critical battle of Savannah, he commanded both the French and American Calvary, where he was mortally wounded, perhaps the first Pole to give his life for American Freedom, living up to the promise he made to the Father of our Country.

Tadeusz Kościuszko



Andrzej Kościuszko – like his comrade Pulaski, Kosciuzko was a military leader in both Poland and during the American Revolution, where he served as a Colonel of the Continental Arm, and was a friend and admirer of Thomas Jefferson. A product of the enlightenment, Kosciuszko was committed to its ideals of freedom and inalienable rights. He was one of several foreign officers recruited by the French arms dealer Pierre Beaumarchais – he had set a shell corporation – Roderigue Hortalez & Co – through which he smuggled weapons recruited officers to train and lead the U.S. forces, who were essentially a group of civilian insurgents facing the highly trained British troops.
An Engineer, he was posted at Fort Ticonderoga where he recommended the construction of a battery overlooking the fort, but the recommendation was declined by the general and when the British attacked, it was via the route that Kosciouszko’s idea would have made impassable. The battle, known as in the Siege of Ticonderoga, had the continentals in retreat, where Kościuszko designed an engineer’s solution to delay the advancing British, using tactics such as chopping down trees, damming of streams, and destroying of all bridges and causeways, which disrupted the British supply lines and allowed the American forces to safely withdraw across the Hudson River. His superiors saw the wisdom of following the Polish Colonel’s suggestions, and Kosciouszko’s recommendations made the fort at Saratoga impregnable, resulting in a British surrender. He later fortified the fort at West Point, where some of his engineering designs are still on display at the military academy.

He was transferred to the southern theater of the war, where he designed fortifications and bridges, through the conclusion of the war. While waiting for his back pay – during his seven years of uninterrupted service to the American cause, he had never collected a single paycheck – he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He soon returned to Poland, where he eventually joined the army as a general. Poland was adopting its own constitution, and the American Revolutionary war veteran argued that peasants and Jews should receive full citizenship status. He was disappointed that the adopted constitution retained the power of the monarchy. During the Russian Polish War of 1792 – many historians believe that part of the causes behind this war was the monarchs felt threatened by the new constitution granting rights to the populace – Kościuszko led several victorious battles, but the Polish king surrendered, a move Kościuszko opposed Kościuszko resigned his post and eventually left the country.

Kościuszko never abandoned the enlightenment ideals of freedom and human rights. He continually worked for Polish sovereignty, meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he disliked – he called him the "undertaker of the [French] Republic" and with Russia's Tsar Alexander I, who tried to convince Kościuszko to return to Poland and be part of a new, Russian-allied Polish state, where land was annexed by Russian and rights remained suppressed. Kościuszko dismissed this new occupation-in-all-but-name as a “joke.”

Kościuszko a visit the United States in 1798 to collect back pay, where he met with his good friend Thomas Jefferson, naming him the executor of will. Kościuszko left his property and money in America to be used to buy the freedom of black slaves, including Jefferson's, and to educate them for independent life and work. After Kościuszko's death in 1817, Jefferson, at age 77, pled an inability to act as executor. Virginia law did not allow such a bequest, and there were challenges to the will by Kościuszko's relatives. The author of the Declaration of Independence was staunchly pro-slavery, a political position sadly he thought more important than a promise to friend, a friend who was instrumental in winning the freedom for the nation Jefferson’s deceleration gave birth to.

About six months before his death. Kościuszko emancipated the serfs – the Eastern European equivalent of American Slaves -- in his remaining lands in Poland, but Tsar Alexander disallowed it.
A son of he aristocracy, Kościuszko an understood the implications of freedom. In the early 1800s, someone committed to equality regardless of class or race, regardless if it’s the Old World or New World, was someone who was in the minority, a radical then but truly, a visionary ahead of his time.


Henryk Sienkiewicz

They say that awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature is always a politic statement , in addition to being global recognition of literary accomplishment. Henryk Sienkiewicz became a Nobel Laureate in 1905 five years before his likens was enshrined on White Eagle Hall on Newark Avenue. He was also only the fifth winner of the then new award. One wonders if the Nobel committee was making some kind of statement against Russia, whose spent much of the preceding century (ies) occupying Poland for conquest. Both Tolstoy and Chekov were still alive, contemporaries with Sienkiewicz, and more widely known. Sienkiewicz was one of the most popular Polish writers at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his "outstanding merits as an epic writer."

Sienkiewicz mainly wrote historical novels, the most famous were set during the Rzeczpospolita (Polish Republic, or Commonwealth), roughly 1500-1700. In Poland, he is best known for his historical novels "With Fire and Sword", "The Deluge", and "Fire in the Steppe" (The Trilogy) set during the 17th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while internationally he is best known for Quo Vadis, set in Nero's Rome. Quo Vadis has been filmed several times – including an early silent feature, considered a lost film – but most notably the 1951 version, which starred Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr, featuring a notoriously wicked performance as a debauched Nero by Peter Ustinov.
In 1876 he went to the United States with Helena Modrzejewska, a famous actress of the era, staying some time in California. He wrote journalism and books about or inspired by his American sojourn and one wonders if these works might have sparked a desire to see the New World amongst his countrymen, tens of thousands of whom joined the waves of immigrants during the Ellis Island era.

Quo Vadis was his most well known novel, an international best seller when it appeared in 1895. It was translated into many languages, including Arabic and Japanese. The book was so well known that horses competing in Grand Prix de Paris were given names of the characters from the book. The novel was repeatedly adapted for the stage, including an opera.

He was celebrated during his life – he died only a few years after winning the Nobel – but during the turn of the century, called on his countrymen, both in Poland and in the United States, to help in efforts for disadvantaged children and for famine victims in Poland, activities he was very much promoting at the time of the White Eagle Hall construction.

In addition to the Polish pride aspect behind his White Eagle Hall enshrinement, the inclusion of a literary star of the era deflates a stereotype of blue collar workers, who made up the majority of Polish immigrants of 1910. Intellectual pursuits – enjoying a good book – is not absent from laborers, and I’d like to think Father Kwiatkowski decision to include the Nobel Laureate was both an encouragement to read his works and a reflection of what writers were popular (or should be popular) among his flock.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel, Sienkiewicz s emphasized his Polish pride and the hope for that his country – ravaged by centuries of oppressive invasions, and on the brink of a new century that would bring more of the brutal same for the next ninety years or so – would be allowed to determine its own fate.
Wiki: He accepted the honor as a proud son of Poland. "She (Poland) was pronounced dead - yet here is a proof that She lives on… She was pronounced defeated - and here is proof that She is victorious.”

Why should these four men adorn the façade of the White Eagle Hall circa 1910? According to historian Maja Trochimczyk, Ph.D., News Editor, Polish American Historical Association, “Paderewski and Sienkiewicz represented the arts, that is they were artistic and spiritual leaders of Poland, well known in America and the most famous Polish artists at the time; while Kosciuszko and Pulaski were the heroes of the American Revolutionary War.”

Trochimczyk helped Dislocations with the identification process.

These are the men watching Newark Avenue for more than a century, and for us open up American history – and our unique connection to Poland – in a way that only art can. While there are various monuments to Polish Americans throughout the country, the White Eagle Hall architectural commemoration is truly one of a kind.



Thank you Magda, whose help made this story possible. Jersey City is lucky to have this smart, well-read and beautiful daughter of Poland! 



  1. Dear Tim,
    Thank you for your interesting history of the White Eagle building and facade. The builders selected excellent examples of Polish heroism for the facade. I lived a few hundred feet from the theater but never knew the history or who the busts represented. I think there should be a permanent plaque inside the theater that explains the building's history, the busts and the Polish connection.

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