Fotoplastikon: the portkey in the heart of Warsaw

Anna Kowalska | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Are you an old soul, who likes to wander through the narrow streets of old towns imagining how the life there was once? Do you get nostalgic while looking through the early, black and white photographs? If both answers are positive, there is a place you cannot skip on your next trip to Warsaw. Fotoplastikon Warszawski is a living monument of a pre-war history, closed within a small room of one of the tenement houses facing the Palace of Culture and Science. I’m taking you on a trip to my personal portkey in the heart of Warsaw.

What is Fotoplastikon?

© Wikimedia Commons/author unknown

Historically, the term fotoplastikon was used to describe a kind of entertainment common in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century. Known also as Kaiserpanorama, it grew out of curiosity about the world and a will to travel to foreign places. How did it look? The Kaiserpanorama was a round wooden construction with the pairs of viewing lenses located around. There were usually around 25 viewing stations where one could sit and enjoy the show. Once the screening started, the photographic glass plates were put on the move and did a tour around all the stations, revealing their beauty. Thanks to the special optical construction, people got the impression of a three-dimensional screening. It is very interesting to note that this impression grows out of two slightly different views (as we can see with our left- and our right eye), which, seen through the lenses, get joined in our brain and create the feeling of space. This kind of leisure activity was extremely popular before the cinema stepped in and took its place.

History of the fotoplastikon in Warsaw

Warsaw’s Fotoplastikon is a very special location due to its history. It is probably the only place of this kind in Europe that was preserved in situ since its creation in 1905. During the pre-war times, there were at least 8 of them in the Polish capital. The Fotoplastikon was also a very important place during the war: here the underground partisans would meet to discuss their plans undercover. The machine was owned by various families through time and has been running almost non-stop till today. One of the interesting legends says that the inside mechanism was modernised in the 1950s and still now is using the same parts: a washing machine engine connected to the Singer’s sewing machine wheels. The DIY construction was made by one of the neighbours from the building and let the owners show the presentation continuously, without having to crank it by hand.

The magical atmosphere

© Anna Kowalska

Currently, the place is open to the public as a branch of the famous Warsaw Uprising Museum. For me, it is always a city’s must-see destination, where a magical turn back in time happens within minutes. Since the Fotoplastikon has various exhibitions to offer, on a hot day in a busy metropolis, we can take a travel back to the beginning of the century Antarctica expedition or admire the Venetian dolce vita from the 1950s in the middle of snowy Warsaw. The most important though is the screening that happens every Sunday: the Fotoplastikon shows the photographs of old Warsaw, not yet razed to the ground, in its full glory. We can peep at the street vendor smiling to the passers-by, hear the hackney bumping on the cobblestones or watch the children ice-skating. All of this is happening with the accompaniment of old tangos, foxtrots and waltzes, lazily pouring out of the speakers. I’m pretty sure this hidden gem was also used as a romantic dating spot throughout its long history!

Where to find it?

© Wikimedia Commons/Wistula

The Fotoplastikon is located in the early 20-century apartment building on the Aleje Jerozolimskie 51 in Warsaw. The ticket costs a bit over 1 euro (6 zł), and the museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday. The Fotoplastikon is only a five-minute walk away from the Central Railway Station and a journey of a hundred years back in time. It is a place where one can easily forget about their own struggles and get lost in chasing the stories of the past. If you feel like using a portkey in the heart of a modern metropolis, make sure to visit the Fotoplastikon in Warsaw, and let yourself visit the past centuries in 3D.

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