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Landmark Status Sought for Famed Polish Nightclub Maryla Polonaise

By Paul Biasco | October 30, 2012 12:40pm | Updated on October 30, 2012 12:58pm

AVONDALE — For a budding musician in Poland during the Communist-ruled years following World War II, a nightclub on Chicago’s northwest side was a dream destination.

Maryla Polonaise, at the intersection of Belmont and Milwaukee avenues, once hosted the most famous Polish bands of the day. While the club currently sits empty and covered in dust, local preservations are fighting to make the building a landmark.

“Imagine that I told you, you had Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and they all played the same bar,” said Dan Pogorzelski, vice president of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society.

In the 1980s and early ‘90s the Polish equivalents of those acts who played at Maryla’s included Czerwone Gitary, Skaldowie, Czerwono-Czarni and Kombi. A number of renowned singers also visited the club such as Eleni Tzoka, Violeta Villas and Stan Borys.

Pogorzelski, who is also the executive director of the Greater Avondale Chamber of Commerce, and Maryla Hawekotte, who has owned the joint since 1980, are considering a push for a landmark status on the building.

Ward Miller, the president of Preservation Chicago, met with the two of them a few months ago to discuss it. Although the building is not architecturally significant, the cultural history could someday lead to landmark status providing legal protection for the building and the possibility of qualifying for property tax breaks.

“I think you just have to prove that significance,” Miller said. “You would need to really prove a strong case for this being a real site for cultural events and stars to come through.”

The neon sign hanging high above Milwaukee Avenue hasn’t hummed since the late ‘90s. Since its closing, the club has remained empty with its mirror-lined corridor and barren wall where a waterfall once flowed, but Polish artists who are touring in the United States continue to call, according to Hawekotte.

In the 1960s an overseas trip to Maryla’s meant, for many Polish bands, an opportunity to not only make more money than they had in their entire careers, but the chance to express themselves freely, according to Pogorzelski.

“You had a small little island of refugees where there was in a certain sense a free Poland where Polish culture existed free of censorship,” he said.

For a band making the trip to Chicago, the length of their stay at Maryla’s depended on how long the crowds continued to pack the place, according to Hawekotte. The club covered the expense for the airfare and provided an apartment above the venue for the length of the stay, which for some was a month and for at least one group lasted six months, Hawekotte said.

“They had a sweet deal, one month guaranteed,” she said, “People would pick [the artists] up, take them out, and bring them out to their homes.”

What to do with the sprawling space remains a question, and while Hawekotte cites uncertain economic conditions, she has not ruled out re-opening the club, which can hold roughly 600 people.

“That’s the big question right now with the economy,” she said.

Hawekotte said it would be impossible for her to re-open the club on her own because of the scale of the project, but she hopes that someone might be interested in leasing the space from her.

“Right now it’s a vacant building,” Pogorzelski said, "but at the same time it has a lot of history."