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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stalin's Gift Finds Its Role in Warsaw

WARSAW -- A local joke runs that the luckiest man in Warsaw is the caretaker who lives on the top floor of its towering Palace of Culture -- because he is the only one who can look out of his window and not see it.

Loathed by many older Poles as a symbol of oppression, the 230-meter, neo-Gothic skyscraper was a "gift" from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1950s, but as a post-communist generation matures, it is finding a new role.

The gray-brown stone edifice between the central station and the main shopping area has survived calls for its demolition, and now what was originally a trophy monument to communist solidarity houses one of the city's trendiest music venues.

The building was last week awarded the status of historic monument and now symbolizes how Poles, who ditched communism in 1989, straddle two starkly opposed systems as the capital booms.

"The palace is now the heart of our city and is used by huge numbers every year," said Krzysztof Markowski, the building's technical director and vice president of its management board. "It may be a reminder of a long-gone epoch, but it is now having a second life, serving us all."

Still Poland's tallest building, the Palace dominates the capital's skyline and is visible for up to 30 kilometers: Its peculiar, ornate design by Russian architect Lev Rudnev is part Empire State Building, part Socialist Realism.

Warsaw residents today use its cinemas, restaurants and bars, three universities and colleges, theater workshops, dance and drama studios, and 25-meter swimming pool, in their own way.

"It doesn't matter that it was once named after Stalin," said Marek Kwiatkowski, professor of architectural history and director of the Royal Lazienki Park in Warsaw.

"We can name it after [former Polish President and Solidarity leader] Lech Walesa if we want. Names change."

Opened in 1955, the Joseph Stalin Memorial Palace of Culture and Science has half a dozen sister buildings across the former Soviet Union, including Moscow State University.

Built on the ruins of central Warsaw -- a city almost entirely destroyed by the occupying German army at the end of World War II -- the palace has 123,000 square meters of floor space, 3,288 rooms, halls and chambers, 42 stories and 36 elevators.

It uses as much electricity as a town with a population of 30,000 and its management says it takes a new security guard more than two years to become acquainted with all its marble staircases, ballrooms, corridors and passageways.

Its eclectic mix of classical pillars, 20th-century heroic-worker statues and reliefs mirrors many other buildings in Poland, Kwiatkowski said.

"Rudnev traveled around Poland and visited its renaissance buildings before construction began and he included some typically Polish motifs," he said. "The palace is more Polish than Russian, in my opinion."

Some argue the building's origins outweigh its merits and say the city would be better off without it. Its status as a historic monument was delayed by wrangling.

Lech Klosiewicz of Warsaw Polytechnic's architecture faculty says the palace has little architectural value.

"Young people think of it as cinemas, cafes, bars, theaters, and recreation, but we cannot forget who gave us this 'gift.'

Nonetheless, Maciej Czeredys, deputy head of conservation for Masovia province that covers Warsaw, argues that the building is an important reminder of an age fast being forgotten.

"This building is as much a symbol of totalitarianism as Versailles is a symbol of absolutism," Czeredys said.