Quaint Finnish homes in Warsaw face destruction

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Associated Press

Posted on March 5, 2013 at 6:05 AM

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Nearby the big city rumbles, but one feels almost transported to a quiet forest village when standing amid a colony of Finnish wooden houses in Warsaw's government district.

The homes, erected as temporary housing in the destroyed capital just after World War II, have dwindled over the years from 90 to about 25. Now the surviving structures have become a point of contention between their inhabitants and a city government keen on tearing them down to make way for new developments.

It's a story being played out in various ways in Warsaw these days, as the Polish capital undergoes a building boom that makes new constructions lucrative for developers and attractive to city officials eager to put their mark on the city. But such change often comes at the cost of old buildings of historical or sentimental value to others.

The Finnish houses, which have served as modest family homes for decades, form a little oasis nestled near embassies, government buildings and a park in one of the most prestigious and expensive areas of the city. Though officials won't say exactly what they plan with the real estate, residents expect to see exclusive housing for lawmakers and other government officials given that the Parliament building is just a short stroll away.

A dweller of one wooden house, Krzysztof Baumiller, said that he expects to have to abandon his home of 51 years so the city can have "a very fancy, fantastic parking or something like that, full of concrete, steel and glass."

"Very nice," Baumiller added bitterly. Now 67, he was a teenager when he moved into his place in 1962. He and his wife have filled the home with books, paintings and antiques, and are fighting a city order to leave it. They realize, however, that they face a losing battle since the almost cottage-like homes and the land they are on belong to the city.

Though the situation seems bleak for the residents, salvation for about six of the homes now appears within reach thanks to the intervention of a new Finnish ambassador who has lobbied the city to save some as a historical reminder of an important chapter in Poland's history, and as a symbol of the Polish-Finnish relationship. Many such homes were also built across Finland after World War II for returning soldiers and others who had lost their homes and were trying to rebuild their lives, Ambassador Jari Vilen said.

"In Finland, unfortunately, a lot of these houses were destroyed," Vilen said. "And we have been regretting this decision very much."

Vilen admitted having his own sentimental attachment to the homes: His great-grandfather worked in the production of houses that were sent to Poland and he cherishes warm boyhood memories with grandparents who lived in one similar to those in Warsaw.

Vilen and city officials say an agreement has been reached in principle to save a few, though the details need to be worked out. Vilen is arguing that the houses, after undergoing renovation, should house a Finnish cultural institute, a Finnish design shop, a sauna and a museum on Warsaw's rebuilding, among other things.

They are "part of the rebuilding of Poland, part of the legacy of Warsaw rising again from the ashes," Vilen said.

The story of the Finnish houses goes back to 1945, when Warsaw was a flattened moonscape of rubble after years of occupation and bombing by the Germans. Temporary housing was desperately needed for the architects, engineers and city planners who would rebuild the city. The wooden homes were prefabricated in Finland and given to the Soviet Union as part of a war settlement. The Soviets, in turn, gave some to Poland, which Moscow had gained control over with the postwar settlement.

Altogether Poland received about 500 such houses, with 90 of them going to Warsaw, said Andrzej Skalimowski, a historian with the Polish Academy of Sciences who studies Warsaw's postwar reconstruction.

In the little colony today, an unusual stillness reigns, even more so at this time of year, when snow often covers the triangular roofs of the houses and the pine trees that rise high above. Firewood is stacked outside most doors, with smoke rising from chimneys. Though charming, conditions inside are basic and chilly in the winter. When heavy wind blows, it pushes through the wooden slabs of the walls. When snow piles on the roof, the houses creak and moan.

But those who live in them love them.

Skalimowski argues it is worth saving a few as "authentic evidence" of the postwar years.

"Of course keeping them all is not possible in today's times," he said. "But keeping three, four or five houses set in a place that shows their relationship to each other would be extremely valuable, especially for the residents of Warsaw and for the next generations."

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Follow Vanessa Gera at www.twitter.com/VanessaGera

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