Polish Flat Exhibit Opens at Basilica Visitor Center

Dr. Jill Lackey of Urban Anthropology Inc.

Dr. Jill Lackey may well claim the title of “miniaturist” behind the design and construction of the new Polish Flat Exhibit, on display at the Basilica of St. Josaphat Visitor Center starting June 13th, but the term sure runs contrary to the massive research and detail required to put the historical, educational and artistic project together.

The dollhouse-like reproduction of a typical Polish dwelling on Milwaukee’s Old South Side in the early 1900s was a group effort by volunteers from Urban Anthropology Inc (UrbAn), following six months of meticulous research by Dr. Lackey, UrbAn’s Principal Investigator, and Rick Petrie, the organization’s Executive Director.

Nearly 100 homes in the Lincoln Village and Baran Park neighborhoods were photographed and documented and the former inhabitants were researched in city directory and census records. Ultimately, the team decided to model their replica on a Polish flat (still standing) located at 2458 S. 9th Place as it appeared in the 1930s when it was owned and occupied by Tomasz and Magdalena Fleter, who immigrated to the United States in 1887.

Along with their seven children, Magdalena’s parents and brother also stayed with the Fleters for a time, necessitating more living space. Commonly, the prevailing method of compensating for the narrow lots was to lift the foundation, add cement blocks or bricks and create semi-basement levels that became new dwellings. Both levels had their own entrances with the first cottage residents adding a porch with steps to their original door.

Lackey, the founder of UrbAn, holds a doctorate degree in cultural anthropology and taught at Marquette University for several years. In addition, she spent more than 20 years as an artist, both in graphic design and miniature displays. The completion of the Polish Flat Exhibit took approximately 500 hours with each tiny brick, blade of grass, shingle, molding, flower, siding and tile added by hand. The work required additional research into period décor and much of the furniture was purchased at collector auctions.

Exhibit viewers are able and encouraged to learn about the lives and lifestyles of the extended Fleter family and the historical contexts of the house through informative accounts included in the display. One interactive question, for example, asks: “It is the era of the Great Depression – what signs do you see of this?” And: “There are five items in this house that you would only find in a Polish home – can you spot at least three of these?”

By the 1930s Tomasz and Magdalena were elderly and lived alone, but all of their children still resided within a mile of their parents. During that decade, Charles Waclaw Snopek, his wife Agnes and infant son occupied the lower unit of the flat, and a number of related Snopeks lived within blocks of them. Among the progeny of one of the Old South Side Snopek families is famed Milwaukee musician Sigmund Snopek III, inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2015.

So now there is another reason to visit the Basilica of St. Josaphat, one of the top things to do in Milwaukee! The Polish Flat Exhibit is on display at the Visitor Center from June 13th through September 13th. Located within the Pope John Paul II Pavilion, the Visitor Center is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

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